It’s time to revisit Nano Technology Safety (Nano-Safety)

Fifteen years ago (2006) there was a white paper published [Ref. 1] that addressed the need to create a structured approach to the handling and usage of nanomaterials.  As stated in the September 2013 blog on Nano-Safety, the primary issues involving nanotechnology is the concern for working with various materials whose properties are different and unknown from the bulk material.

“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, … 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.” [Ref. 2] 

The application of nanotechnology to health issues has seen significant developments along with related issues.  Gold nanoparticles have been employed to attach to cancer cells and then be irradiated by IR wavelength that pass harmlessly through skin but heat the gold and destroy the cancer cell that the particle is attached to.  Concerns can arise about the accumulation of the gold in the body.    

Fortunately, the tools available for investigation of the nanomaterials has been improving along with a better understanding of the interaction of nanomaterials with the human body.  

Research is approaching an interesting time.  Work is being done on nanosensors that can be connected to create a sense of “feeling” in prosthetics.  Graphene, of which research has been conducted, is now finding applications is material composite, where each layer is a single atom thick.  We are not close to large scale manufacturing – yet, but applications are being developed that promise to be able to reproduce some concepts of human feeling capabilities.  There is some work being done that could mitigate eye damage like Macular Degeneration. 

One issue that needs to be addressed is the impact of the new composites on people and the environment.  The process for long term evaluation and governmental approval is long.  This is especially true when considered to the half-life of startup companies. 

There is a need for a reevaluation of the existing guidelines for Nano-Safety and to create an update that is directed at nanotechnology and the medical environment.  The ability to expedite the development and application of nanotechnology in medical situation could provide a benefit for many.  This could be a 5th element of Nano-Safety.  More on this topic will be in future blogs.

References:

  1. Available at http://www.tryb.org/a_white_paper_on_nano-safety.pdf
  2. September 2013 blog http://www.nano-blog.com/?m=201309

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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