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Nanotechnology – What Is It? Are there Hazards?

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Written By:  Robert E. Sheriff, MS, CIH, CSP, President
February 27, 2020

Nanotechnology – What is it? Are There hazards?

This is the first of a series of 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.

Nanotechnology Users

Nanoparticles are already in use in both personal and commercial products.  Some examples:

  1. In Textiles (Clothing) – Water repellence, anti-static, wrinkle-resistant, strength, UV blocking, sensors, self-cleaning clothing, anti-bacterial clothing.
  2. Medicine – Cancer treatment, targeted illness cures, virus treatments, multi-drug resistant bacteria, antimicrobials, nanorobotics for microsurgery.
  3. Personal Products – Suntan locations, sunscreens, make-up.
  4. Sports – Nanotube tennis rackets, tennis balls, lightweight/stronger clothing and guards, golf clubs, lightweight equipment that is stronger (helmets).

In Energy

  1. Solar Cells – selenium cells, thin-film solar cells, dry sensitized solar cells, multi-junction solar cells. 

In Electronics

Molecular size crystal displays, molecular size machines, replicators that can assemble any size microscopic machines.  Molecule size memory storage, wearable computers, and nanobots.

In Foods

Packaging that reduces spoilage and identifies spoiled foods.

-Encapsulation of vitamins for greater life and stability, delivery of substances to targeted body sites.

Nanoparticles and Ultra Fine Particles

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 a tremendous surface area that allows a 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, it was believed that the 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 Brownson 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 particle can have detrimental effects on our bodies, as well as many constructive uses now available or in development.

Hazards

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.

For more information contact Atlantic Environmental.

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