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MANAGING BEST PRACTICES: Start your nanotech education now

May 1, 2007
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The nanotech revolution is predicted to be in full swing by 2015. By then many engineered nanomaterials will have moved out of the research lab and into the marketplace, creating over a $1 trillion global industry and employing more than one million workers in the U.S., according to NIOSH and other sources.

Many EHS pros are now signing up for courses and are expanding their reading to learn more about nanotechnology. This article will help you get the most out of these learning experiences.

Why should you learn about nanotech now?

Most EHS pros probably won’t see actual engineered nanomaterials in their work environment until a few more years have passed. Jumping in now to learn about nanotech may seem premature, especially since nano-talk is mostly speculation.

There are two main reasons why you should take time out of your busy schedule to learn nanotech now:

1) It takes time to absorb nanotech information; and

2) You need to explain nanotech to other people — employees, employer, and the general public.

Explaining EHS issues with nanotech to other people is particularly important. An EHS pro’s practical views on nanotech may go a long way in helping to influence how this new technology is accepted or rejected by the public; which sets the stage for industry guidelines and new regulations.

The public’s view on nanotech issues often lacks input from an EHS pro. The “Nanotechnology for Dummies®” book published in 2005 is a good example. The book has 16 chapters and 361 pages — but only about one page is devoted to EHS risks/controls. People need to hear more about nanotech’s EHS issues in plain English. You may serve that role among the people you encounter.

One micron long well-aligned carbon nanotubes grown using plasma CVD. Inset colored blue is top view of the nanotube array. CREDIT: NASA Nanotechnology Gallery

We’re all dummies

I provide nanotech instruction in professional development courses for organizations such as ASSE, NASA and other organizations. I have a graduate degree in occupational health from a medical college, many years of experience and multiple professional credentials. But here’s a little secret between us, I struggle just like everybody else to figure this stuff out.

You’ve probably heard that new nanoscale materials have a surface area of more than 5,000 square meters per gram of material (about three acres of surface area in a teaspoon of powder). This thought even now boggles my mind and I have to visualize and crunch numbers to accept the premise — which is a key foundation in understanding the novel properties of nanomaterials.

The novel properties of engineered nanomaterials bring us back to having to learn or relearn key concepts of chemistry, physics and math. And unless you teach in a university, you rarely use these concepts.

Math concepts

Why should someone have to know the mathematical concept of 10 raised to the 21st power (1021)? Because that’s the possible number of one nm-sized particles in the teaspoon of nanoscale power mentioned above.

We shouldn’t ignore math concepts because it leads to another basic premise of nanotechnology — particle number (along with surface area) may be more important than mass (weight) of material. This leads into concepts such as it takes one billion 10 nm-diameter particles to equal the mass of one 10 micrometer diameter particle (even now I pause to think about this concept). Traditional concepts of exposure assessment measure mass, e.g. mg/m3; which may also be described in parts per million when a chemical’s molecular weight is considered.

Science concepts

With nanotech we need to understand, or at least appreciate, science concepts. Without this understanding, logic may mislead people in dealing with nanomaterials.

Here’s an example:

HEPA filters in ventilation systems or respirators have been measured to be 99.97 percent efficient in capturing 300 nm sized-particles (recall that nanomaterials are defined as having a diameter less than 100 nm). How efficient is a HEPA filter at capturing nanoparticles sized at 3 nm? Simple logic may lead someone to conclude that since the nanoparticle is so small that it may pass completely through the HEPA filter — capture efficiency should, therefore, be very low. The capture efficiency, however, becomes greater. The reason for the greater capture efficiency has to do with science concepts of Brownian movement and diffusion behavior of very small particles. But even this simple concept needs to be considered with other scientific principles.

Communication

Communication is critical when learning about nanotech in an instructor-led course. Communication means the instructor sends out a verbal or visual message and receives feedback that students understood the message. The ultimate feedback would be in the form of a completed written or verbal test, which rarely occurs in a professional development course.

In the nanotech courses that I am familiar with, many students give false feedback. They nod in agreement or say they understand when they really don’t adequately grasp the message. And why do they do this? They don’t want to appear dumb in front of their peers. The problem is magnified by students who might have professional credentials such as the CIH.

As noted above, when we deal with nanotechnology we should assume that we’re all dummies. Having the instructor refresh our memories of science principles will not be viewed as an embarrassment. If you didn’t grasp a concept in a nanotech class chances are many other students were lost, too. Recommendation: Always have the instructor clarify concepts that are not clear.

Ethics

In these early stages of the nanotechnology revolution, ethics — meaning doing the right thing — is equally important as science. Any nanotech course you take should include a discussion on ethics, especially reviewing what is meant by the “precautionary principle.” In cases of ethics, what students have to say collectively may be more important than what the instructor individually provides. An ethics question that I like to provide students is, “Is it OK for someone to promote themselves as a Certified Nanotechnologist (CNT), implying they have special knowledge of nanotech risk and control? If you don’t think it is OK, what should you do?”

Best practices

Nanotech is far enough along now that EHS best practices and actual case examples are being reported. An example is the International Council on Nanotechnology’s http://icon.rice.edu/ report “A Survey of Current Practices in the Nanotechnology Workplace (November 2006).” Nanotech courses should discuss these actual and best practices so that issues such as respirator use can be viewed in a practical sense.

Home study

Attending nanotech courses can only take you so far because of time restrictions and the specific subject matter that is to be presented. Home study before and after attending an instructor-led course is necessary to build upon your growing nanotech knowledge.

The Web continues to see more nanotech sites. At the very least, EHS pros should explore nanotech information found at the NIOSH Web site http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/nanotech/.

Conclusion

Whether you are at the beginning or twilight of your EHS career, a better understanding of nanotechnology holds great promise. This understanding may be accomplished without having a formal academic education, but it will require additional effort and patience on your part. For those people with a formal education, unless the education was recent, you may not have been introduced to the new concepts of nanotechnology. New and continued learning about nanotechnology is necessary.

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Recent Articles by Dan Markiewicz, MS, CIH, CSP, CHMM

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