Nanomaterials, the new asbestos?
We all know of the devastation that asbestos can cause as a slow and silent killer
. Nanomaterials have become a hot topic for scientists and the Health and Safety Executive alike, with the possibility of serious illness if nanomaterials are inhaled
What are nanomaterials?
The definition given by the European Commission is materials where half or more of the particles are 1-100 nanometres. To put this into perspective, 1cm contains 10,000,000 nanometres
. Pretty small stuff.
What are examples of nanomaterials?
Nanomaterials can be found in many materials, though they're often used in industry in things including:
- Carbon nanotubes
- Metal oxides e.g. gold, iron, silver, platinum and titanium
- Quantum dots
What are the dangers of nanomaterials?
Studies have shown that there are similarities between asbestos and nanomaterials. They cause the same irritation and inflammation
of the lungs, which plays a major part in causing cancer in many individuals who have been exposed to asbestos.
These studies show that nanomaterials cause the same response that causes cancer
. However, the ultimate long term effects are not known, because nanomaterials are so new, so it can't be said that they definite cause cancer. With that said, we found out too late the devastating effects of asbestos exposure, so if we see the same pattern emerging again
, should we really ignore it?
Not all nanomaterials are harmful. What makes them harmful is 'bio-persistence' meaning that the fibres don't disappear and break down
. Asbestos doesn't break down or dissolve, and stays inside your lungs, causing irritation throughout your life.
What can I do?
The Health and Safety executive have published guidelines
on nanomaterials in the workplace
, and individuals are protected by Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations. Employers should carry out similar procedures as they do when handling asbestos, such as keeping the fibres moist, so that they don't float freely in the air.