(NHI Nanoblog) Want the latest on Kim Kardashian’s divorce? Take your pick of hundreds, if not thousands, of stories.
But when it comes to super-small newfangled materials popping up in countless new products—and the emerging questions about their health and environmental impacts—digging up news is a lot harder.
According to a recently published study by two Lehigh University researchers, the potential risks of nano-enabled products rarely make headlines, at least in the mainstream media. When they do, the coverage tends to center on a single event or scientific study, rather than long-term, in-depth reporting.
Sharon Friedman and Brenda Egolf looked at coverage in 20 U.S. and nine U.K. newspapers and two wire services from 2000 to 2009. They found only 367 articles in that time that included a discussion of health or environmental concerns. Friedman is a journalism professor and the director of the science and environmental writing program at Lehigh; Egolf is a research scientist at the school’s Center for Social Research.
The paper was published in the journal Risk Analysis.
According to their study, the coverage hit its peak in 2006, when 57 articles appeared in the U.S. sample. But it’s declined since then—American papers and wire services produced only 17 articles in 2009.
The results show that the nanotechnology risk story “was not an important topic,” Friedman and Egolf write.
That trend seems unlikely to reverse. With newspapers and other media outlets in an apparently continuous downsizing, science coverage has seen a precipitous decline. Friedman and Egolf note that almost all of the American reporters who authored pieces included in the study are to longer with their newspapers or wire services.
Nanotechnology leverages the often amazing properties of super-small engineered particles (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter). These tiny materials can make airplane wings stronger, through the introduction of nearly weightless carbon nanotubes, or make exterior paint self-cleaning with nano-titanium dioxide.
There is broad agreement that these substances show great promise in a wide variety of areas, from cancer treatments to electronics. Shrinking these materials, however, sometimes changes the way they interact with the world around them, raising serious questions about their impact on health and the environment.
Scientists are racing to understand and quantify any danger, while regulators around the world struggle to protect people, animals and the environment without going overboard.
Friedman and Egolf’s study raises an important point, because nanotechnology is increasingly used in consumer products, such as sunscreen and other cosmetics. Since it’s almost never labeled, it’s almost impossible for the average consumer to understand what they’re using.
“Nanotechnology, like other scientific or technical fields, continues to evolve, but it would be difficult for readers of this coverage to follow any evolving trends,” Friedman and Egolf write.
Meanwhile, researchers and policymakers continue to slog through the difficult process of identifying potential problems, and then dealing with them. But without a strong conduit between the public and the scientists—a role traditionally played by the media—even the strongest warnings won’t trickle down (and, even worse, warnings that aren’t based on facts just might).
Does it matter? There is, after all, more nano news to be found outside the big media players, whether it’s via online aggregators like Nanowerk, niche publications such as Chemical & Engineering News (and, arguably, this one) or blogs like Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science.
Can smaller platforms replace the big megaphones, while still reaching a critical mass of people? Maybe Kim Kardashian knows.