Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating tiny particles that are one-billionth of a meter in size. To put this in perspective, a nanometer is roughly the width of three or four atoms and is 1000 times smaller than a red blood cell. Put another way, the average human hair is about 25,000 nanometers wide and the head of a pin is 20,000,000 nanometers wide.
Anthropogenic sources of nanoparticles have existed for a long time in forms such as diesel exhaust, cigarette smoke and welding fumes. Natural sources also exist such as volcanic eruptions. However, the emerging field of nanotechnology involves newly produced and often highly-engineered nanoparticles, with names such as carbon nanotubes, fullerenes and quantum dots and including nano-sized metals such as silver and titanium oxide. In general, nanoparticles are defined as particles in the 1-100 nanometer range. Because engineered nanoparticles are much smaller in size than bulk particles, they have larger surface areas relative to their diameters, resulting in novel properties. New electrical, catalytic, magnetic, mechanical, thermal and imaging properties of nanoparticles provide the foundation for advancing nanotechnologies in numerous ways.
Nanotechnology is an 'enabling' technology, where nanoparticles are engineered to perform specific functions. Nanotechnology has been applied in the fields of energy, medicine, environment, electronics, consumer products, transportation, and agriculture. The emergence of nanotechnology has been compared with the industrial revolution and is likely to have a significant impact on almost all areas of society as it may replace much of our manufacturing base with new processes and products.
The Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies (a joint project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts) estimated that in 2007, $60 billion worth of nano-enabled products were sold. By 2014, the Lux Research group predicts that $2.6 trillion in manufactured goods will incorporate nanotechnology - about 15 percent of total global output. Nanotechnology will also produce employment opportunities, with an anticipated 7 million jobs generated globally in the next decade. The Woodrow Wilson Project on Nanotechnologies has developed a website that contains information on products containing nanoparticles.
Massachusetts maintains a leading position in nanotechnology research and technology development, with over 100 self-identified firms, and major nanotechnology research centers at most university campuses. Nanotechnology is a leading strength for Massachusetts and an important driver of our local economy.
Currently the growth of the nanotechnology industry has outpaced the development of information on the potential health and ecological effects of exposure to nanoparticles. There is insufficient information to characterize risks posed by exposure to nanoparticles. Toxicity will depend on the type of nanoparticle and the exposure, or dose, which may produce adverse effects in humans and ecological resources. An overall concern about the potential toxicity of all types of nanomaterials is their large surface area relative to their size Inhaled nanomaterials can pass through the cells of the lungs into the vascular system (circulatory system, blood), and from there move to sites beyond the lungs. Testing in laboratory animals suggest that inhalation of carbon nanotubes may be capable of producing pulmonary inflammation and fibrotic changes in the lungs similar to those reported with other types of fibrous materials such as asbestos. Other laboratory tests suggest that some nanoparticles can enter the skin of laboratory animals. Several studies have measured the antimicrobial effects of nanoparticles such as silver and titanium oxide. Although the limited data available suggests that some nanoparticles may cause problems, more testing is needed to enable scientists to fully understand the health and ecological effects of nanoparticle exposures.
A March 3, 2009 study, The Impact of Toxicity Testing Costs on Nanomaterial Regulation, published on the website of the journal Environmental Science & Technology estimates that it may take 34 to 53 years to complete toxicity testing of nanomaterials at a cost between $249 million and $1.18 billion. A key question is: do we wait for all of the health risk information we need for risk assessment, or instead take interim steps in the short term to minimize potential future problems? Environmental health and safety programs, through the application of best and current practices, provide one path to help prevent future health and environmental problems.
Presently there is only limited regulation of nanoparticles. In one case, the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) has used the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to address Samsung washing machines. When Samsung made the marketing claim that their washing machine discharged silver nanoparticles to disinfect clothes, US EPA determined that they would need to register the product under FIFRA. Samsung has stopped making the claim about the antibacterial properties of its washing machine. The US EPA also initiated a voluntary nanomaterial stewardship program for companies to report on their use of nanoparticles. However, only a few companies have participated. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the US EPA flags 'new' chemicals for reporting and testing, but does not consider, for example, silver nanoparticles as new, because silver in non-nano form is not new.
In 2007, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) joined with other Massachusetts agencies, the Department of Public Health, Division of Occupational Safety, Office of Technical Assistance, Toxic Use Reduction Institute and the Office of Business Development, to establish the Massachusetts Interagency Committee on Nanotechnology. The missions of these agencies complement each other and allow Massachusetts state government to approach nano issues in a holistic way as well as with agency-specific expertise. The Interagency Committee seeks to promote the safe development of nanotechnology in Massachusetts and is taking a proactive approach, including considering the lifecycle of nanoparticles and their associated nanoproducts. The Interagency Committee is exercising state leadership on this issue but also encourages national leadership on the safe development and use of nanotechnology.
In November 2007, the Interagency Committee hosted a workshop, The Big Picture: Safe Development of Nanotechnology. The proceedings of that workshop can be found at Nanotechnology Workshop Proceedings - November 2007 . The main purpose of this workshop was to initiate a dialogue with the agencies' stakeholders on this emerging issue and to address specific issues such as worker protection, environmental releases and product safety. Approximately 120 participants also spoke about next steps that they would like the Interagency Committee to take to continue the dialogue and to address key issues.
In January 2009, the Interagency Committee on Nanotechnology hosted a second workshop on Promoting the Safe Development of Nanotechnology in Massachusetts: Workshop: Promoting the Safe Development of Nanotechnology in Massachusetts - January 2009 . The purpose of this workshop was to continue the dialogue with stakeholders from industry, government, research, academia, and others on approaches to protecting workers, public health and the environment from exposure to engineered nanoparticles. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell spoke to the 170 participants about existing Interim Best Practices and Good Current Practices to protect workers, the environment and public health. Breakout sessions provided an opportunity for participants to apply the practices. The afternoon session focused on techniques to measure airborne nanoparticle releases within the workplace and was the first time this training was provided for the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic regions.
The Interagency Committee on Nanotechnology will continue to sponsor forums and to use information from the dialogues to obtain a better understanding of nanomaterials and nanoproduct manufacturing, use, disposal, and hazards of the technology as well as potential roadblocks to safe development in order to work with the sector towards preventing unintended consequences. During 2009, the Interagency Committee will focus on specific topics such as the proper disposal of nanomaterial wastes from research laboratories and remediation of contaminated groundwater using nanomaterials. These meeting are open for all interested parties to attend.
For more information, please send correspondence to Carol Rowan West, Director, Office of Research and Standards, Department of Environmental Protection, Carol.Rowanwest@state.ma.us.
Due to the national and indeed global nature of nanotechnologies, federal leadership is needed to ensure their economic and technological promise is not compromised by unanticipated environmental, worker and public health issues.