Environmental journal publishes controversial buckyball study

April 8, 2004 — A buckyball toxicity study that spawned considerable debate inside and outside the nanotech industry last week has been published in an environmental journal.

The journal Environmental Health Perspectives this week published Manufactured Nanomaterials Induce Oxidative Stress in Brain of Juvenile Largemouth Bass, written by Southern Methodist University environmental toxicology lecturer Eva Oberdorster. The peer-reviewed study, conducted by Oberdorster and her students, is believed to be the first to show that uncoated fullerenes can cause brain damage in aquatic species.

She and her group found the rates of brain damage to be 17 times higher in nine large-mouth bass exposed to a form of water-soluble buckyballs. The rate was in comparison to nine unexposed fish. The study found what she called “moderate toxicity” in the fish. The concentration of nanoparticles used in the 48-hour laboratory study was .5 parts per million.

Oberdorster presented the study last week at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim, Calif., which was attended by several media organizations and received broad international coverage. The study also became a hot topic among speakers and attendees last week at the National Nanotechnology Initiative conference in Washington. Some publicly accused the media of misleading the public about the environmental risks of nanoparticles.

In both her talk and the study, she stressed that further research needs to be done to evaluate the potential toxicity of manufactured nanomaterials on living organisms, and she is seeking federal money to continue her work. She also criticized some media reports that “twist your words around.”

“Considering the benefits of nanotech, I think it’s actually a great trade-off. Imagine if we can make more-efficient fuel cells and decrease our dependence on highly toxic fossil fuels,” Oberdorster told Small Times in an e-mail. “But that doesn’t sell newspapers. Scary stuff like ‘the buckyballs will eat your brains’ sells much better. Doesn’t matter that it’s not correct, as long as it sells papers.”

Still, she is grateful to have helped spur talk about the environmental impact of nanomaterials: “I think this also points out that the public really wants to know what the risks and benefits of nanotechnology are so that they can make informed decisions.”

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