Research and commercial applications of nanotechnology are rapidly advancing. Thousands of companies all over the world are employing this new technology in research and development and production. Current applications cross a variety of industries, including electronics, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and biomedical, photography, metals/minerals and energy.
Nanotechnology is the generic term for applications and products that contain extremely small particles, tinier than 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Matter this small has unique properties which are being harnessed for technological innovation.
While research and development efforts still dominate this developing field, an estimated 350 nanotechnology-based consumer products are now on the market, according to a recent survey by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.1 Nanoparticles can be found in the composite materials in golf clubs, tennis racquets and bicycle frames to make them stronger and more wear-resistant. These particles also are ingredients in paints and coatings, tools, air sanitizers, self-cleaning glass, long-lasting tennis balls, stain-free coatings for clothing and mattresses, dental material, burn and wound dressings, cultured diamonds, inks, appliances and flat screen televisions. So far, the greatest use of nanotechnology mineral and metal particles is found in cosmetics, sunscreens, fabric coatings, electronics and composite materials.
Nanotechnology offers significant opportunities for nearly every industry, but it also comes bearing a host of questions. Advances in nanotechnology products and applications are outpacing research into possible adverse effects, as well as regulations that might govern the use of these products and applications. This is why it is critical that safety managers understand and keep pace with the implications of this exponentially growing field.
The very small size of nanoparticles makes them highly reactive with properties that differ from larger particles of the same substance. Their small size potentially increases health effects, risk of fire or explosion and/or environmental persistence.
Exposure to nanoparticles potentially poses a greater threat to the body than larger particles of the same substance. Experimental rat studies, for instance, have shown that nanoparticles, such as carbon nanotubes, can affect lung tissue by causing inflammation and initial lung fibrosis2. Other pharmaceutical studies have found that nanoparticles are able to cross the blood-brain barrier, which safeguards the brain from chemical contamination.3 While there is concern for workers exposed to nanoparticles, the research on potential health effects is just beginning. Initial results indicate that the use of the "precautionary principle" for worker protection would be prudent at this time. Nantechnology substance Material Safety Data Sheets often do not contain nanospecific information, reporting hazard information for larger sized particle substances. This situation may under-represent user exposure hazards as well have failure to warn implications for manufacturers.