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Zambia: Working Group to Consider the Potential Risks of Nanotechnology in Africa
Source: CSIR e-News - November 2013
Source Date: Monday, December 02, 2013
Focus: Knowledge Management in Government
Country: Zambia
Created: Dec 02, 2013

Musee says researchers in nanotechnology hope to find solutions to some of Africa’s chronic challenges such as tuberculosis, malaria as well as water and energy provision.
However, the level of awareness and capacity to address the potential risks of these applications are not adequately addressed, particularly in the African continent. “The result is that nanotechnology is being touted in developing countries which strive to meet their millennium development goals (e.g. morbidity and mortality related to infections, water, food and sanitation challenges).We need to understand the implications of the technologies we choose to use. We need data that can help the industry to proactively change the properties of their products or consider alternatives, if it is necessary,” says Musee.
Nanotechnology involves the manipulations of matter at a molecular and atomic scale and these might function very differently from the original material. Such materials often reveal new physical, chemical and biological (possibly including toxicological) properties.
Nature produces nanoparticles (volcanic emissions and smoke) but biological life forms on earth have not adopted mechanisms to cope with potential adverse effects of nanoparticles engineered by man.
Engineered nanomaterials are of similar size range as exhaustion particles from engines’ combustion and in experiments on mice it has been found that carbon nanotubes can have similar carcinogenic effects as asbestos fibres.
Producers of nanomaterials often argue that the nanotubes are embedded in product matrixes and people are unlikely to be exposed. They also argue that the toxicity demonstrated in laboratory tests does not occur once the engineered nanomaterials are incorporated in final products.
Scientists, however, are concerned that the use of these materials during production and at the end of the product’s life span could release potentially toxic particles.
“We learnt too late from previous technological revolutions and their harmful effects on humans and the environment (such as asbestos) but how do we use these lessons in the nanotechnology era?” Musee asks.
Asbestos used to be popular among manufacturers and builders because of its resistance to heat, but the inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause serious lung conditions which led to its trade and use being restricted.
Musee and his colleagues believe it is easier and less expensive to prevent such damage than trying to mitigate it afterwards. This is more so at the infancy stage of a technology development as is the case of nanotechnology.
According to Thwala, about 70% of research and commercial investment is currently focused on the synthesis and beneficial manipulation of nanomaterials and only 4% towards understanding the risks. “This risk assessment is almost non-existent in Africa and we need the working group to take into account the unique risk factors in Africa.”
The extent of growth in global production, trade and the use of industrial chemicals require an ability to manage the potential pollution through regulation and monitoring. Some developing countries lack the capacity to deal with this burden, which could lead to ecosystems, livelihoods and health being threatened.
The working group is chaired by Dr Phenny Mwaanga from the Department of Environmental Engineering, School of Mines and Mineral Sciences at the Copperbelt University in Zambia.
Dr NdekeMusee
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