New Delhi: The science of nanotechnology—dealing with particles a thousand times thinner than a strand of human hair—may itself be new, but with scientists coming up with applications for nanoparticles in the electronics, chemical and pharmaceutical industries, the government wants to understand the polluting and toxic effects of these particles.
A growing body of research also suggests that nanoparticles could easily lodge themselves within the body and cause respiratory problems. In 2006, several German firms were forced to withdraw their cleaning products, all of which claimed to use nanoparticles. Many of these products caused respiratory problems. But a study by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment found that while these effects were caused by the products, none of them actually contained nanoparticles.
Suspended particulate matter (SPM), a major component of diesel and petrol emissions and defined as particles 2.5-10 micrometres in diameter—that’s a thousand times larger than nanoparticles—are already a matter of concern.
“If SPM is a problem, nanoparticles could penetrate the skin, eyes and significantly cross the blood-brain barrier (a layer of cells that protects the brain),” said a senior adviser at the government’s Department of Biotechnology (DBT), who did not wish to be identified. DBT will oversee the study.
Nanotechnology involves manipulating materials at the nano level. At that size, materials exhibit properties significantly different from their known nature. For instance, copper, which is opaque, becomes transparent; gold, which is a solid, becomes liquid. The government and the private sector are interested in developing nanotechnology applications. The science ministry announced a Nano Mission last May and has allotted Rs1,000 crore to this over a five-year period.
Though India is yet to see substantial investments in its nanotechnology sector, venture capitalist firms such as Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ), which helped Hotmail and Skype start off, are now betting big on nanotechnology. As previously reported in Mint, Steve Jurvetson, one of the firm’s partners, said that over 15% of DFJ’s overall (global) investments are in nanotechnology. Venugopal Dhoot, chairman, Videocon Group, and president of industry lobby Assocham, said only 22% of the investment in nanotech comes from the private sector, compared with 50% in the US.
K. Sridhar, a microbiologist at Mangalore University, who has authored a research paper on nanotechnology pollution, said that while some studies showed nanoparticles had adverse health effects, others showed they had none. That uncertainty can be removed, he said, only if a systematic study were to be carried out.
The Energy Research Institute or Teri, a Delhi-based think tank, initiated a study in March that would include the toxicological fallouts of nanoparticles, said Ligia Noronha, a senior researcher with Teri.