So, would you say that the results of your research indicate that there is no need to worry about the release of silver nanoparticles from consumer products into the environment?
Hearing this from the reporter makes me incredibly nervous and aggravated. We just spent 30 minutes discussing my research paper, and this question demonstrates I did a poor job of communicating my results. I don’t even want to answer because I’m afraid of being misquoted and having the value of my work plummet. It’s all I can do to keep from hanging up the phone immediately.
But instead I respond, trying to keep the condescending tone suppressed, “No, my research simply shows that silver is released from consumer products into sewer systems and most of it will be contained within the biosolids of a wastewater treatment plant, and from there…”
Wait a minute, could you explain what you mean by biosolids?
What the hell? Did this person even read the paper they had me send to them so they could save 40 bucks instead of buying it online? My contempt for the media was increasing exponentially by the minute…
Hold on, Troy…cut the reporters some slack, your paper is written for a scientifically-trained audience. There’s no reason why anyone outside of environmental engineering would know what ‘biosolids’ are.
“Sure, sure…biosolids are…um…the… ah..” I stammer as my mind races to find a coherent explanation of biosolids. It occurs to me that I’ve never had to explain the term. It’s common knowledge…among environmental engineers.
I start again, “Biosolids are the dead cells of microorganisms,” –don’t use big words– “uh…it’s the dirt and bugs” –don’t dumb it down either– ”uh… it’s the particulate, left-over organic matter…” –Will they understand what I mean?– “from the process of wastewater treatment.”
Silence from the other end of the line. I have no idea what I just said. So I try to make a save. “A lot of times biosolids are referred to as sludge.”
Oh, ok, I get it.
The reporter humors me. Note to self: look up definition of biosolids.
By this time, my anxiety has reached a pinnacle, and I’d bet the reporter is experiencing the same. The interview winds down with a final question:
So…ah... I’m sure you’re aware that a petition has been brought against the EPA to regulate nanosilver as a pesticide, what are your thoughts about this?
I am aware of this, in fact, because my report was used as evidence that regulation of nanosilver was warranted. And even though I knew a question like this was coming, because every reporter I’ve ever spoken with has asked something similar, I can’t hold back my laughter.
Why are you laughing?
Because your question is utterly ridiculous, and you have no idea how complex my answer would have to be. And instead of spitting vulgarities in a fit of rage at the ignorance of the question, I laugh instead. My mind races to find the underlying motives behind the reporter’s policy question.
Is this person trying to get a quote that will be used to polarize my research? Will the quality of my work be questioned depending on my answer?
What is my true opinion about what the policy should be regarding nanosilver? The interview stalls while I contemplate everything I’ve experienced in the nanosilver issue.
Products are being infused with nanosilver to combat microbial growth, but toxicologists are unsure how nanosilver will affect environmental and human health. My research quantified the release of nanosilver from consumer products into wastewater, and suggests that silver could be reintroduced into the environment through the disposal of wastewater treatment biosolids. But how does this information help anyone make a decision about nanosilver policy?
Supporters of nanosilver regulation could use our findings to say that silver released from products into our environment could cause unknown adverse effects. This precautionary principle stance is countered by arguing that the adverse effects can never be fully understood, and regulation would hinder a viable economic market that already exists for nanosilver products. Both arguments are valid based on the available scientific data. A policy decision would therefore be a negotiation between precaution and economic development.
My flashback of three years of nanosilver research is interrupted by the reporter’s prodding:
You can feel free to give me your opinion, I won’t quote you.
My cynical side doesn’t believe this statement. So I feebly offer, “I don’t feel comfortable answering your question. I don’t think my results indicate regulation is warranted or not.” I decide I don’t have nearly enough time or the articulation to express my previous thoughts in a short phone conversation, especially with a reporter. I have trust issues.
The phone interview draws to a long-awaited conclusion but the anxiety lingers. I retreat to the dark basement laboratory for comfort and consider never giving another interview. At that thought, the lights come on.
About the Author: Troy Benn is a doctoral student in ASU’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment and became CSPO’s third PhDplus by successfully defending his dissertation on November 13, 2009.