Monday, 30 January 2012


Every sane person now accepts that asbestos and smoking aren’t good for you. Mind you it’s taken millions to die to ‘prove’ it. Following on from an article on this site – Out of sight is not out of mind, Graham Cliff, asks whether the dangers of nanoparticles are now being similarly ignored. Graham is a Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester. His email is

Would the late Doctors Richard Doll, John Knox, Irving Selikoff and Vernon Timbrell, tolerate the present state of affairs with respect to the regulation of anthropogenic nanoparticles, that prevails today in the twenty first century?

As a non-smoking, so called “expert” in the identification of asbestos, I don’t believe so.

Professor Sir Richard Doll’s obituary, in the Telegraph, 25 Jul 2005 (1), described him as an epidemiologist and former Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University. He was one of the first two scientists to link smoking, with lung cancer, in a report in the British Medical Journal of 1950, which concluded “The risk of developing the disease increases in proportion to the amount smoked". This early study was the first in the world to show that smoking could cause not only lung cancer but also heart attacks. Doll subsequently collaborated with Dr. John Knox (2), Chief Medical Officer with Turner Brothers Asbestos of Rochdale, and with others, to publish a series of papers analyzing the mortality of asbestos workers with reference to the incidence of lung cancer.

In retrospect, the time lag in each case between initial demonstrations and general acceptance of the hazard seems to be inordinately long. In part, these delays subsequently resulted from protests, drawn-out court actions and biased scientific investigations by vested interests. In some cases, rearguard actions continued long after courts had started awarding damages for the illnesses. At the present stage of knowledge, relating exposure to sub PM2.5 particulates and adverse effects on health, it is tempting to draw a parallel with earlier discoveries in the 20th century, of factors with adverse health effects, e.g. ionizing radiation, radioactivity, heavy metals, certain organic compounds and not just cigarette smoking and asbestos. It is to be hoped in this instance that the appropriate responses will be put in place in a more timely fashion, unpalatable, as many aspects will undoubtedly be. (3)

In summary, views about some of the questionable benefits of ignoring air quality regulation today, when set against some of the potential costs to health, bear comparison with failure in the 20th century. Taking effective precautionary action to avoid the plausible hazards of smoking and aerosol asbestos exposure would have saved much health harm, reduced treatment costs and other attendant inability to work costs. The precautionary principle was just not applied with any rigour.

Professor Vyvyan Howard, of Ulster University, NI, has commented on poor air quality since before 2004, when he is quoted as remarking that “nanoparticles can cross the blood-brain barrier” Other studies have linked nanoparticles to cardiovascular disease, asthma, lung fibrosis and Alzheimer’s disease (dementia). (4)

Also in 2004, Professor Ann Dowling, in a Royal Society Report stated that “Nanoparticles can behave quite differently from larger particles of the same material and this can be exploited in a number of exciting ways. But it is vital that we determine both the positive and negative effects they might have.” (5)

The late Dr. Vernon Timbrell commented upon the warnings about the smallest of particles being too often totally ignored, in 1996. Perhaps he was concerned that, as with smoking, he was seeing with asbestos the need to wait until victims existed to prove that warnings were justified? My own early research involved the analysis of aerosol asbestos particles, and I subsequently analysed aerosols containing combustion products, which can massively reduce air quality with its smoke emissions, regulated to only PM2.5.

From December 1971 I was able to examine particles to about 50nm in the first Analytical Electron Microscope, the AEI EMMA -4.  From October 1973 until April 1974, in the Reserve Mining versus the EPA court case (the longest running US environmental court case), the doctors from Mount Sinai, including Dr. Irving Selikoff, could not then do this. They had declared that discovering an infinitesimal particle (an asbestos fiber) was “incomparably difficult”! (6)

My techniques for aerosol particle analysis were developed to achieve analysis to nanometre dimensions and atom analysis limits. With my colleague Peter Kenway, I published the engineering design criteria needed to do this in 1989. (7)

It has taken 22 years for this to be realised in the modern FEI ChemiSTEM. (8)

It will be capable of achieving particle analysis of nanoparticles and fully characterise them.
Although today, the only nanoparticles it seems to analyse are catalysts. It does not appear to be used to analyse potentially harmful nanoparticles from aerosols. Perhaps because this does not provide a profit?

I hope not and I hope that the many warning of the inadequacy of regulation of nanoparticles is recognised.

Professor John Dearden, of Liverpool John Moores University has remarked that the danger from very fine particulate emissions is only now being realised, and very fine particulates cannot be filtered out effectively from (the likes of) incinerator gaseous emissions. (9)

We now know that combustion products cause cancer and heart attacks. Dr. Andrew Lucking has postulated that in his home city of Edinburgh, if diesel buses had filters to remove small particles, heart attacks would stop! (10)

We are increasing anthropogenic nanoparticle emissions, with no adequate control for any particle size smaller than PM2.5.

Thirty-five years ago, in 1977, it was realised by Manchester University asbestos “expert” Professor Jack Zussman that “any material to which people are exposed on a large scale needs to be tested for its physiological effects”. (11) The material to which he referred was processed crushed mineral material – that is small particles of material exposed to the public on a massive scale!

The potential for causing harm to human health, from unregulated nanoparticles, many of which are anthropogenic, is immense and insufficient research is being applied to this problem. Most of the reasons I have been given, privately, are financial. I simply want to know who will be paying the bill in the future for the failure to act now.

We are supposed to learn from history but by the time something is done we may well be just too late for the many innocent victims of a failure to act today?

Yours sincerely,
Graham Cliff.

 References –
1)             Professor Sir Richard Doll, obituary, Telegraph, 25 July 2005.
2)             Dr. John F. Knox, obituary, Oxford Journal of Occupational Medicine, London, 1973.
3)             Dr. Barry Clark, text adapted from “A rationale for the mandatory limitation of outdoor lighting”, April, 2009. Original text from the author as a 111 page PDF. (Email - contact Graham Cliff)
4)             Prof Vyvyan Howard, “What they don’t know could hurt you”, Hazards magazine, 87, 2004.$FILE/nanotechsafety.pdf?OpenElement&enetarea=01
5)             Professor Ann Dowling, Royal Society Report, 29 July 2004. Quote in Hazards magazine, 2004
6)             Dr. Thomas Huffman, “Enemies of the people: Asbestos and the Reserve Mining Trial”, 2005.
7)             Cliff & Kenway, “The future of AEM: Toward atom analysis”, 47th EMSA, 1989.
8)             ChemiSTEM – FEI Inc, advertising PDF, 2011.
9)             Prof John Dearden, Parliamentary Waste Strategy Memorandum, DEFRA, 2007.
10)         Dr. Andrew Lucking, “Filtering fumes could reduce heart attacks”, Edinburgh University, 20 April 2011.
11)         Professor Jack Zussman, Proceedings NBS Asbestos Workshop, July 1977.

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