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Nanotechnology – What Is It? Are there Hazards?

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Written by Robert E. Sheriff, MS, CIH, CSP, President

November 9, 2018, Updated August 2019

This is the first of a series articles on the emerging field of Nanotechnology.

What is Nanotechnology?

In short – small! Very, very small. Nanotechnology comes from the prefix Nano which, in English, means 1/billionth, just as micro means 1/millionth. So Nanotechnology involves 2 things: 1) extremely small man-made materials – some even as small as 1 atom thick, generally referred to as Nanoparticles. Examples are the memory chips for iPods® and titanium dioxide in sunscreens, and 2) extremely small particles that are emitted from some process or activity. These are called Ultra Fine Particles.

Nanoparticles and Ultra Fine Particles

Without getting into too much detail in this article (we’re saving the details for later issues), both Nanoparticles and Ultra Fine Particles can cause health problems.

It was previously thought that if these ultra-small particles were inhaled, they would simply be exhaled without being retained in the lungs. Recent information suggests that this is not true. Due to the phenomenon called Brownian Motion, nanoparticles are buffeted by atoms and molecules of gases and vapors, which push them onto lung surfaces where they remain.

Further, it was thought they were so small and light that they would have little or no effect on the human body. Not so. Even though they are small and light, in total they have tremendous surface area that allows much greater likelihood of reacting with the cells in our body. In the case of nanoparticles, it is not the weight that is significant, it is the vast surface area that presents the potential to contact and react with tissue surfaces – usually lung tissue.

Next is was believed that filtration of the nanoparticles could not be captured by any type of available filter because of their size. As it turns out a HEPA filter is effective apparently due to Brownian Motion, not mechanical filtration.

Finally, technology now allows us to detect and study the effect of extremely small amounts of chemicals and particles on cells, molecules, and individual genes. We are thus finding that small particles can have detrimental effects on our bodies.


Is this complex? Yes! Is it confusing? Yes! In future issues, we will clarify, talk about the hazards as they are known; ways to measure and how to prevent health hazards. If you would like to follow our technical articles click here to join our mailing list.

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