Advanced Materials Part 6: Do novel materials present novel risks?

Do novel materials present novel risks? Novelty is a big part of
advanced materials. Not novelty in terms of amusement
of course – although the inventors of Silly Putty may beg to
differ – but novelty as in something that’s new or unusual. If you can design and
engineer a material that behaves differently to other materials you open
the door to improving existing products and inventing exciting new ones. If you
get it right, you could make a financial killing.
But novel materials can also help find solutions to some really
stubborn challenges like ensuring everyone has enough food, and
water, and energy, for instance. This is fantastic… as long
as your fancy new material doesn’t create more problems than it
solves. And here’s the rub – how do we know that
these novel materials don’t come pre-packaged with novel risks? On the surface, the question
makes a lot of sense. If a material is designed
to behave in unusual ways, who’s to say that that
unusual behavior won’t lead to unusual biological impacts
that in turn lead to unusual harm, and unusual diseases?
However, this is also a somewhat misleading question,
and here’s why: From a human health perspective
we’re interested in risk – what can cause harm,
how does it do it, how much harm could potentially be
caused, and how can we reduce or avoid this? As far as
our bodies are concerned, they couldn’t care less about
whether the risk is novel or not – they’re just interested in
whether something is going to hurt, and how to avoid that hurt!
For instance, if you hit your thumb with the latest
nanocomposite-metamaterial-super-hydro- whatever hammer, the instrument of destruction
may be highly novel, but the pain will be the same as if
you’d used your grandmother’s antique nail-whacker. The novelty
is in the hammer, but not in the harm it causes. The danger here is that
focusing on novelty rather than risk diminishes
the importance of the actual harm to the material could cause. It implies that the only
interesting risks are the new and unusual ones.
And it ignores the reality that many common risks associated with
materials – novel or otherwise – remain highly important
and poorly understood. When it comes to novel materials and advanced materials more generally,
a much better question is: “Can this material potentially cause harm?” Followed quickly by
“Under what circumstances, what type of harm, how much,
and how can it be avoided?” These questions focus on
impact rather than novelty, and recognize that many novel materials
may in fact present rather mundane risks – that nevertheless still
need to be dealt with. Of course there’s still the chance that a novel material will do
something entirely unexpected if it gets into your body. As last week’s Risk Bites
highlighted, this is where we need scientists asking
the difficult questions – just in case something new does
come up. But until it does, fixating on novel risks runs the “risk” of overlooking the more boring risks
that are likely to be a problem unless dealt with. Next week, the last in
this series looks at turning risk on its head, and asking
whether understanding potential health impacts can actually help us design
better advanced materials. Until then, stay safe.

9 thoughts on “Advanced Materials Part 6: Do novel materials present novel risks?

  1. There is nothing more dangerous in life than being born. After that you're guarantied to die, one way or another.

  2. Not really. It's the same for most people, the heart stops pumping blood. When, however, that's a different question.

  3. What about comments on eating star fruit and drinking star fruit juice and the risk of renal problems? It would be interesting topic to discuss…

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