Nano-Safety

Nano-Safety

What is safety with respect to nanotechnology?  In the simplest terms, it is the development, manufacture, application, and control of nanomaterials in a manner that minimizes potential issues, both known and unknown that may impact both people and the environment.  All chemicals can kill one, it is just a matter of quantity.  Dangerous materials, even poisons, can be beneficial if applied in the proper dosage.  Just because something is dangerous does not mean it should not be used.  Fire is dangerous if mishandled, but does that mean we should not use it?

One concern about safety in handling nanomaterials is based on the unknown issues.  Not knowing the impact on people or the environment can lead to unfounded concerns and a reluctance to accept developments.  This is not only true for nanomaterials but many commonly employed materials/processes when they were first introduced.  If you want to examine issues that have long had proponents and opponents, examine the application of milk pasteurization or the case of adding fluoride to drinking water.

In approaching this problem, I have proposed that the issue of Nano-Safety can be addressed a systematic manner that involves 4 key concepts or pillars, which are: 1) Nanomaterial properties; 2) Impact on people and the environment; 3) Handling of nanomaterials; and, 4) Business focus.  Last week’s blog covered some of the different material properties that have been found.  I will cover each of the remaining ones in future blogs.  This concept was developed in a white paper on Nano-Safety in 2007.[1]  The 4 concepts below are from the white paper and used with permission.

”1)      Material Properties: Obviously, one aspect is the development of an understanding of the properties of all the materials, a situation complicated by the lack of availability of metrology tools.  A more fundamental question is what properties should be investigated.  If the starting point is to ensure an understanding of the impact of the nanomaterials on people and the environment, then investigations can be focused on material properties within the expected operational parameters, like room temperature, atmospheric pressures, etc.  Understanding the properties is necessary before it is possible to understand their impact.

“2)      Impact on People and the Environment: Another aspect is a greater understanding of the impact of nanomaterials on the human body.  For instance, significant advances are being made in the treatment of cancer by employing customized molecules that incorporate nanoparticles and deliver them to cancerous sites.  These specialized molecules either deliver specific chemicals or other material like gold or carbon nanotubes to the site requiring treatment.  The chemicals will react with the cancer and begin destroying it.  The other materials can be heated by many different methods and destroy the cancerous cells through the elevated temperatures.  These approaches promise significant advances in treatment of diseases; however, the long-term impact on the body is under investigation and no definitive answers exist.

“3)      Handling of Nanomaterials: The question of handling and storing Nanomaterials is important from both the implications for the people involved and the impact on the environment.  Yet, without any knowledge of the basic properties, the extent of the precautions required is unknown.  One always wants to err on the side of safety, but potentially onerous procedures, based on worst-case scenarios, will diminish the progress being made in applying nanotechnology to everyday problems.  Procedures are required based on fundamental evaluations and historical efforts.

“4)      Business Focus: The business aspect is important.  Given the fact that businesses need to protect their workers as well as their corporate liability, they need to operate according to established guidelines.  These guidelines do not exist!  Consequently, there is the potential for significant corporate liability.

“NANO-SAFETY is not something that will come into place before there is a need, and the need is today.  The application of nanomaterials has been happening for some time.  Unlike earlier times in history when people simply proceeded and ignored the consequences, today’s environment requires that people and organizations be responsible for their actions.  Action is required.”

Closing thoughts

The intent of including references is to provide a starting point for anyone who wants to learn more.   I received one post that indicated the writer was going to do some checking of both the included references and others to check the assumptions presented.  That is great. Investigate, Learn, Decide.

References:

  1. Available at http://www.tryb.org/a_white_paper_on_nano-safety.pdf

About Walt

I have been involved in various aspects of nanotechnology since the late 1970s. My interest in promoting nano-safety began in 2006 and produced a white paper in 2007 explaining the four pillars of nano-safety. I am a technology futurist and is currently focused on nanoelectronics, single digit nanomaterials, and 3D printing at the nanoscale. My experience includes three startups, two of which I founded, 13 years at SEMATECH, where I was a Senior Fellow of the technical staff when I left, and 12 years at General Electric with nine of them on corporate staff. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, an MBA from James Madison University, and a B.S. in Physics from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

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