2019 ISO Looks at New Risk Posed by Societal Trends.


Small Things Considered: What Dangers Does Nanotech Pose?

Nanotechnology refers to scientists studying, manipulating, designing, manufacturing, and using materials on a scale between 1 and 100 nanometers. (1) To put that into perspective, a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. A human hair is about 75,000 nanometers thick; a sheet of newspaper is 100,000 nanometers thick.

The small size of engineered nanoparticles means they often have different properties than the same material on a larger scale. It's these differences that allow scientists and researchers to create innovative products, from medical drugs to everyday consumer goods.

Similarly, material toxicity may change on the nanoscale. Take zinc oxide, a chemical often used in sunscreen lotion and other products. On the macroscale, it's relatively inert and generally considered to be of low toxicity. But on the nanoscale, zinc oxide exhibits different properties, which may increase its toxicity. Furthermore, nanoparticles may be small enough to move throughout the human body, crossing the blood-brain barrier, accumulating in certain organs, entering human cells, and causing reactive oxygen damage.

Other nanoparticles, such as carbon nanotubes and carbon nanofibers (engineered nanoparticles often used to strengthen other materials), might lead to health complications when inhaled, like those caused by asbestos. (2) In the workplace, such toxicity is of particular concern for "upstream" workers manufacturing nanoparticles in their "pure" form, often as powders or slurries (to prevent the nanoparticles from becoming airborne and subsequently inhaled). However, when combined with other materials, such nanoparticles may be less toxic.

But quantifying nanoparticle toxicity, exposure, and risk is complicated. The health effects of nanoparticles depend on various characteristics, including, in part, their size, structure, composition, and ability to clump together (or agglomerate) to form larger particles. In addition, past studies generally have provided results from laboratory studies using ideal or simplified exposure scenarios, while current research is more focused on studies representative of exposures in real-world settings. To complicate matters further, health effects from nanoparticle exposures could have long latency periods. For example, if carbon nanotubes do cause asbestos-like health effects, those effects might take decades to manifest. (3)

Despite such difficulties, governments and private entities have begun taking action to mitigate nanoparticle health risks in occupational settings. For one, risk management techniques have been introduced in manufacturing operations to reduce exposures. The U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has been conducting occupational exposure studies and publishing guidance related to nanotechnology risk management, including suggested occupational exposure limits for some nanoparticles and recommended control methods to reduce worker exposures.

For another, the large data sets generated by nanoparticle research have led to the development of "nanoinformatics" to collect, categorize, share, and mine research data on chemical and physical properties and health effects of nanoparticles...

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