“If we don’t understand and address the safety risks of nanotechnologies, people will probably not buy the products,” Dr. Andrew D. Maynard, chief science advisor for the DC-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, said in his keynote address during the American Society of Safety Engineers‘ (ASSE) “Solutions in Safety Through Technology” symposium held in Scottsdale, AZ.
Many corporations are holding up development of products using nanotechnologies because they don’t understand fully what the risks are,” Dr. Maynard told the crowd. “They are the smart ones as they know that once they do understand and properly address the safety, health and environmental risks they will be ahead of the curve.”
Dr. Maynard’s talk 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 1-100 nanometers to create and use structures, devices, and systems that have novel properties. One nanometer is one-millionth of a millimeter and a single human hair is around 80,000 nanometers in width.
Experts note that nanotechnology research has focused on molecular manufacturing–the creation of tools, materials, and machines that may enable us “to snap together the fundamental building blocks of nature easily, inexpensively and in most of the ways permitted by the laws of physics.” Past efforts at molecular level manufacturing have been described as attempts to assemble LEGO pieces while wearing boxing gloves. Nanotechnology, scientists say, will enable us to take off the gloves and build extraordinary things.
“A definition of nanotechnology that I would like to share with you today puts it quite simply,” Dr. Maynard said. “Richard Smalley said that nanotechnology is the art and science of building stuff that does stuff at the nanometer scale.”
Cancer researchers are very excited about nanotechnology,” Dr. Maynard said. “Using nanotechnology, they have developed particles for treating cancer…there is a switch on this nanoparticle that can tell the particle to destroy a cancerous cell. They hope to have more research done in the near future.”
Dr. Maynard said there are several products in the marketplace containing nanomaterials such as sunscreen, insoles, cosmetics and batteries. A list of some of these products can be found here.
So, what are the risks? 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,” Dr. Maynard said. “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.
Dr. Maynard also raised is the need to learn the nature of nanomaterials when they are released in the air, such as a carbon nanotube. How will we be exposed?
“There are layers and layers of complexities,” Dr. Maynard said. “We need to manage this exposure, but how? Do we use the control banding concept or can we develop an exposure index? As of now I can say this – 1) nano is now; 2) expect the unexpected – be aware that there may be unusual things happening; and, 3) we need good science so it is important that we all collaborate, collaborate, collaborate and find new ways of working together.”
Dr. Maynard noted that currently there is patchy research and a real need for global research on the topic. He added that there could be a backlash against the technology and its products due to perceptual risks.