The biotechnology department has scrapped a proposed project to analyse the toxic effects of nanoparticles, as it found no Indian research agency competent to undertake the study.
In 2008, the ministry of science and technology had advertised its plans in leading science journals to fund a comprehensive study to estimate the toxicological effects of nanoparticles.
“We were not satisfied with the proposals that we received,” said a senior official in the science ministry, who didn’t want to be identified.
“However, there are several research initiatives going on that use a variety of nanoparticles derived from several materials, beyond gold and silver. So these groups have been asked to look into toxicological aspects too,” he added. “But one comprehensive project is, as of now, out.”
These organizations include the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology and the Indian Statistical Institute, both based in Kolkata.
The science of nanotechnology—dealing with particles a thousand times thinner than a strand of human hair—is rather 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 limited but growing body of research in some European countries caution that nanoparticles could easily lodge themselves within the body and cause respiratory problems. In 2006, several German firms were forced to withdraw detergents that they claimed used nanoparticles, after these were found to cause respiratory problems.
K. Sridhar, a microbiologist at Mangalore University and author of a research paper on nanotechnology pollution, said while some studies show nanoparticles have adverse health effects, others say they have none. That uncertainty can be removed, he said, only if a systematic study is done.
Suspended particulate matter (SPM), a major component of diesel and petrol emissions and defined as particles 2.5-10 micrometres in diameter—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 Pramnik Ojha, a senior researcher at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
Nanotechnology involves manipulating materials at the nano level. At that size, materials have 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.