"If we don't understand and address the safety risks of nanotechnologies people will probably not buy the products," said Andrew D. Maynard, Ph.D., chief science advisor for the D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. Those comments came from Maynard’s keynote address last Friday during the American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) "Solutions in Safety Through Technology" symposium, held in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The speech, and much of the symposium, focused on what is known about the risks of nanostructured material and steps needed to take to ensure the safety of the workforce. Nanotechnology has been described to mean the technology development at the atomic, molecular, or macromolecular range of approximately one to 100 nanometers, to create and use structures, devices and systems that have novel properties.

There are no definitive studies yet on whether nanomaterials can penetrate the skin and, if they were to penetrate the skin, what would the risks be. It is not yet known what happens should a nanomaterial be swallowed or enter the lung.

"There are real risks," said Maynard. "There is an urgent need to do more research. We need to identify the questions, get the answers and find the most effective routes to communicate those answers. For instance we need to look into the toxicity, the exposure, doses and characterization of nanomaterials and educate, educate, educate. We have a long way to go."

We don't know everything about nanomaterials, but we do know that there will always be new risks with new technology," Dr. Maynard continued. "But what we do know is that NANO is now." Dr. Maynard noted that initial criteria for nanotechnology research would be on 1) those materials capable of entering the body; 2) materials that exhibit nanostructure dependent biological activity – nanoparticles; 3) those that agglomerate – to gather into a ball, to cluster; 4) degradation -- the deterioration in quality or standard of performance; and, 5) unintentional use such as sucking on materials.