Most people canâ€™t. The United Kingdomâ€™s Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering conducted a public opinion survey in 2004 and found that fewer than two in ten people could explain what it meant.
If all you know is nanotechnology involves the research, manufacture and use of extremely small products, then you might want to expand your understanding.
The global economic impact of nanotechnology products and services is estimated to reach $2.6 trillion by 2015. â€œNothing, it seems, will escape the influence of nanotechnology,â€ surmised the consulting firm Deloitte earlier this year. And that includes the environmental health and safety profession.
One of the problems with nanotechnology is weâ€™re going to hear more and more fantastic things about it. And fantastic is not too far from scary for many people. It will be up to EHS pros to help employers and employees separate science fact from science fiction. Hazard and risk communication programs will need to be re-energized when an employer considers using nano-materials in their products.
Important point: the classical laws of physics change dramatically at atomic level. A nano-sized material may behave quite differently from its big brother. The theories of quantum mechanics, which even Einstein doubted initially, are the driving science of nanotechnology.
Could the page youâ€™re holding benefit from nanotechnology? Ecology Coatings, a small nanotech company in Akron, Ohio, recently discovered an inexpensive way to make paper waterproof, yet easy to write on, by applying a liquid nano-material to it. Prior to nanotechnology, the cost to create waterproof paper was too prohibitive for common use.
Nanotube materials have been plated onto products such as golf clubs and tennis rackets to make them lighter but stronger. Newer stain- and wrinkle-resistant clothing is effective because of nano-materials. Nano-sized drugs exhibit greater solubility or have novel properties that may increase their effectiveness. Nano-materials are being applied to glass to make windows â€œself-cleaning.â€ And nano-materials are boosting the power of computers. Deloitte appears on target â€” nothing may escape the influence of nanotechnology.
Iâ€™ve read that nano-sized aluminum particles may spontaneously ignite. You will need to verify this. Could other nano-sized metals spontaneously ignite? And what is the best way to extinguish a fire involving nano-sized materials? A stream of water probably wouldnâ€™t work.
Titanium dioxide is a good absorber of UV light and it is used in sunscreen lotions. Standard size titanium dioxide, however, is white and when used in sunscreens will leave a visible appearance when applied to the skin. Nano-sized titanium dioxide is transparent and is now preferred in sunscreens because it leaves no unsightly residue. But EHS-wise, do we treat the two sizes of titanium dioxide differently? More importantly, should existing materials undergo new toxicity testing, such as required by the Toxic Substances Control Act, once they become nano-sized?
Could nano-sized materials penetrate through the skin? Or once taken into the body could they be lodged in organs such as the brain? If nano-sized particles are so ultra-small, what respirators or other PPE will offer protection? What about ventilation systems, vacuums, and other means to capture or measure nano-materials, such as air sampling for industrial hygiene purposes â€” what works, what doesnâ€™t? Could nano-materials create pollution problems?
There is limited experience to go on with nano-sized materials. Some carbon black powder, welding fumes, and diesel exhaust may reach nano-size. But the more we learn about these materials, the more often we find the smaller, ultra-fine particles are more harmful than the larger particles. Does this hold true for other nano-sized particles?
In August 2005, the International Council on Nanotechnology and Rice University Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology launched the worldâ€™s first nano-EHS database at http://icon.rice.edu/research.cfm. The database houses the growing number of scientific findings related to the EHS risks and benefits of nanotechnology.
NIOSHâ€™s Web site on nanotechnology is found at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/nanotech/. EPAâ€™s Web site for nanotechnology is at http://es.epa.gov/ncer/nano/. Numerous links to other nanotechnology Web sites are found at the NIOSH and EPA sites.