masks for covid

Sweating the small stuff as we build global futures

It’s easy to get caught up in big ideas and grand notions of what’s important as we think about global futures–climate change, planetary health, complex systems, global governance, and so on. But how we imagine, design, and set about building the future is also deeply dependent on the finest details of technologies we create, and the risks as well as the opportunities that these open up. And these in turn are often rooted in a fine-grained understanding of the tangible world we inhabit.

This is something I’ve been thinking about quite deeply over the past few days as I’ve followed a breaking story around the potential health risks associated with an engineered nanomaterial that’s being used in some face masks.

Graphene-containing face masks — good idea?

Last Friday, Radio Canada reported that the Canadian Government was advising users not to wear face masks containing the engineered nanomaterial graphene. Graphene has a number of potentially useful properties, including an ability under some circumstances to inhibit viral activity. As a result, more than a few manufacturers have started to incorporate it into face masks to help prevent coronavirus exposure–although whether it actually does reduce the risk of infection is unclear. However, irrespective of its anti-viral properties, it is by no means clear how safe or otherwise graphene is, especially if it’s inhaled

Over the past few months, there have been anecdotal claims that graphene-containing face masks have impacted the respiratory systems of wearers–especially when worn for long periods. This was brought to the attention of Health Canada, and a preliminary risk assessment was conducted.

This risk assessment led to  the agency releasing a recall and safety alert stating “Health Canada is advising Canadians not to use face masks that contain graphene because there is a potential that they could inhale graphene particles, which may pose health risks.”

In effect, manufacturers have been adding a substance to face masks that, if inhaled, could potentially cause harm. Yet up to now, no one seems to have been asking questions about what the risks of doing this are, and whether they justify any potential benefits that the addition of the material might lead to.

As a result, the health of users has potentially been threatened–especially those wearing the masks for long periods–and public health messaging around the importance of mask use to reduce COVID infections has been undermined.

This is a potentially serious health issue, and one that extends well beyond the boundaries of Canada. A quick Google search for instance shows just how easy it is to purchase graphene-coated face masks in the US and beyond.

But more than this, the emerging situation underlines just how easy it is for manufacturers to introduce potentially dangerous new technologies into products without anyone noticing until it’s too late–even when there are clear indications that it’s not a good idea to do so. And this, in turn, emphasizes just how important coming to grips with the safe use of new technologies is as we strive to build a better future.

Nanoparticles and heath

Research into the potential health impacts of engineered nanomaterials goes back to the early 1990s when scientists discovered that some very fine inhaled particles had a far greater impact on the lungs than their mass alone would suggest. From there, a sophisticated science around what has become  known as “nanotoxicology” has grown up.

Nanotoxicology is an area of study that makes it very clear that the size, shape, composition, and surface chemistry of particles can have a profound impact on the potential health risks they present, and that these need to be taken into account whenever purposely manufactured nanoscale particles are used in products.

In my own work, I cut my teeth on nanoscale particle research back in the late 1980s and early 1990s as I studied airborne particles using high-resolution electron microscopes. But it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that I explicitly began to study exposures to purposely designed engineered nanomaterials, and the potential health impacts that might result. This research ultimately led to me working with experts around the world on ways of  developing and using these materials as safely as possible.

Much of the early work in nanotoxicology was driven by concerns that, if fine particles with unusual properties are able to be inhaled and penetrate to the sensitive gas-exchange regions of the lungs, and if they’re durable enough to stick around for a while once there, they could cause short-term health-impacts, and possibly longer-term damage.

These worries built on decades–centuries in some cases–of research into the potential health impacts of inhaled particles. For well over two thousand years it’s been known that inhaling fine metallic particles can lead to lung disease. And over the past hundred years in particular, we’ve had to grapple with health impacts from exposure to a growing range of airborne particles, from coal dust and asbestos fibers to silica, welding fume, and environmental PM2.5 particles.

And in each case, fine particles have been associated with lung damage.

In effect, we’ve known for some time that inhaling small particles is a bad idea. And in the late 1990s and early 2000s the growing interest in producing intentionally designed fine particles under the auspices of nanotechnology raised serious concerns–and prompted international research efforts to understand and avoid any potential health impacts.

As toxicology research on these new nanomaterials progressed, it became clear that substances that might intuitively be thought to be benign–carbon-based materials for instance–could become surprisingly toxic in some nanoscale forms. Carbon nanotubes represented one of these materials–especially carbon nanotubes that have a similar size and shape to harmful asbestos fibers. In fact, carbon nanotubes were especially singled out as a material of interest in a review of critically needed nanotechnology safety research that we published in the journal Nature in 2006.

Fortunately, graphene nanoparticles are not as toxic as carbon nanotubes. But research to date still indicates that there’s a lot of uncertainty around how harmful they might be if inhaled. As a result, this is definitely a category of material that it would be irresponsible to use in a product where inhalation exposure might occur, unless you had rock-solid evidence that either the material was not released at all from the product or, if it was, it presented a negligible health risk.

And this brings us back to face masks

Why would anyone be so stupid?

Given everything that we know about the potential health risks of inhaling fine particles, why would anyone think it’s a good idea to incorporate a potentially harmful nanomaterial like graphene into face masks that are going to be breathed through for several hours per day?

The evidence is clear here–this is a really bad idea, unless there is peer-reviewed evidence (and ideally evidence that’s been cleared by regulatory agencies) that the risks are negligible compared to the benefits. Yet with masks that are currently on the market, I’ve yet to see any evidence to this effect.

And to make matters worse, it now seems that evidence to the contrary is beginning to emerge–that some of these masks could lead to health impacts if worn for extended periods.

This points toward a blindingly wide chasm between the people and institutions who know about nanomaterial toxicity–the researchers studying this, and the agencies and organizations that are funding and otherwise supporting them–and those who are in a position to make this research accessible and meaningful to product developers.

That this is happening with engineered nanomaterials where we know enough to be cautious, beggars belief. Someone should have asked questions, raised the alarm, talked to the manufacturers, and made sure people were aware of the dangers. But they didn’t.

This is not rocket science. It’s just didn’t-think science.

To make matters worse, the emerging issues around graphene use in face masks undermine trust in all masks, at a time when it’s critically important that people continue to wear them to reduce the spread of COVID. Ironically, adding graphene to face masks isn’t likely to make them significantly better at what they do. And so while this move may have increased revenues for some companies, the net effect will have been to increase health risks on multiple fronts.

This is a major problem, and it’s only going to get larger as the full extent of graphene-based face mask use around the world becomes apparent. But there is an even bigger issue at stake here–and that’s how knowledge on the responsible use of new technologies propagates down to the individuals and companies who are at the forefront of designing the future we’re all heading for.

We cannot talk about global futures without talking about responsible innovation

Every day, millions of decisions are being made around the world on how to combine new and emerging technologies together and incorporate them into new products. Each decision on its own may seem inconsequential–tweaking the way graphene is produced for instance, or altering the size and shape of the resulting nanoparticles, adding other substances to change their functionality, finding novel ways of applying them to textiles, changing the fabric they are paired with, and so on. But their cumulative impacts can be profound.

No matter what the technology, whether it’s nanomaterials, biotechnology, AI, robotics, the Internet of Things, or a plethora of other emerging capabilities, it’s these small, often hidden, steps, that ultimately lead to the products that end up in our hands, affecting our lives, and  determining our future. Yet if these steps are pursued without thought or knowledge as to the potential consequences, the results can be disastrous.

A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture about the importance of how our mastery over the “base code” of biology, materials, and cyber technologies is placing us at a tipping point in human history. A proverb I was playing with using as I prepared for the lecture–but ended up ditching in the interests of time–was the one about losing a kingdom for want of a nail.

It’s a common proverb with a number of variations, but it typically goes along the lines of “for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost …” all the way up to “for want of a battle, the kingdom was lost; all for want of a nail.” The moral isn’t subtle–if you don’t take care of the seemingly insignificant small stuff, you’ll lose out when it comes to the very significant big stuff.

This is a message that resonates deeply with how new technologies, together with the myriad steps that define and underpin them, are intertwined with our futures. And it doesn’t take much to imagine a tech version of the proverb that starts with a lack of care and responsibility over the small stuff, and ends up with lost futures.

The emerging situation around graphene in face masks is deeply indicative of such a chain of events. With more awareness and a sense of responsibility around those initial decisions to add graphene to masks–and importantly, what type of graphene to add, and how to incorporate it–the potential social and health impacts we’re now facing could have been avoided. In this case, lack of knowledge really isn’t an excuse. Where there are negligible health gains and potentially significant health risks, who in their right mind would think it’s OK to ask for forgiveness rather than actually think through the potential consequences first when using a new technology? Rather, what we’re seeing play out is a lack of access to relevant knowledge and advice, combined with a mindset that doesn’t even recognize the importance of asking the right questions.

Hopefully, the graphene-in-masks issue can be corrected before too much damage is done. But this is just one example out of many that play out every day–and serious as it is, it could very easily have slipped under the radar. And it’s a sobering reminder that, if we’re serious about building more just, equitable, vibrant and safe global futures, we have to sweat the small stuff. And we have to place ethical, informed, and responsible innovation at the heart of what  we do.

Otherwise, for someone, somewhere, we risk the future being be lost for want of not taking the small stuff seriously.