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What is nanotechnology?

What are nanomaterials?

Nanotechnologies involve the creation and/or manipulation of materials at the nanometre (nm) scale. One nanometre is 10-9 m or one millionth of a millimetre. By comparison, a human hair is approximately 70,000 nm in diameter, a red blood cell is approximately 5,000 nm wide and simple organic molecules have sizes ranging from 0.5 to 5 nm.

White with Red blood cell ~2 to 5 μm

White with red blood cell ~2 to 5 μm

Human Hair ~60 to 120μm wide

Human Hair ~60 to 120μm wide

Nanoparticles exist in nature, for example, milk contains nanoscale droplets of fat and every cell in your body relies on nanosized protein complexes to function.

Nanoparticles are also manufactured or produced as a by-product of many long standing processes, such as fires, diesel engines and high energy manufacturing processing such as welding or grinding.

The production / manufacture of engineered nanomaterials is a rapidly developing area, with a wide range of applications in many different industries. For example, a biologist may use a nanomaterial in their work producing life changing medicines, a builder may incorporate a self cleaning window, coated with a nanomaterial into a new house, or members of the public may use cosmetic products which incorporate nanomaterials.

Regulatory definition

On 18 October 2011 the Commission adopted the Recommendation on the definition of a nanomaterial. According to this Recommendation a “Nanomaterial” means:

A natural, incidental or manufactured material containing particles, in an unbound state or as an aggregate or as an agglomerate and where, for 50 % or more of the particles in the number size distribution, one or more external dimensions is in the size range 1 nm - 100 nm.

In specific cases and where warranted by concerns for the environment, health, safety or competitiveness the number size distribution threshold of 50 % may be replaced by a threshold between 1 and 50 %.

By derogation from the above, fullerenes, graphene flakes and single wall carbon nanotubes with one or more external dimensions below 1 nm should be considered as nanomaterials.

The definition will be used primarily to identify materials for which special provisions might apply (e.g. for risk assessment or ingredient labelling). Those special provisions are not part of the definition but of specific legislation in which the definition will be used.

The regulatory definition of a nanomaterial that has been adopted by the European Commission. A material that falls within this definition is not automatically hazardous and a material that falls outside this definition is not necessarily of low hazard. If you are unclear about the level of hazard of any material that you are using, you should apply a precautionary approach to risk management.

Benefits of nanotechnologies

Nanotechnologies offer potentially huge benefits to society, industry, the environment and health. They can help us improve our quality of life and respond to some of the key issues of the day, such as climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Other potential benefits include contributions to improved energy storage and efficiency, better diagnosis and treatment of disease, faster computer systems and remediation of polluted air, soil and water.

What is HSE's role?

HSE's role is to ensure that people are protected from any risks to their health and/or safety arising out of work activities, and, HSE has responsibility for the occupational/worker protection aspect of manufactured nanomaterials.

As with all new technologies, new, unusual or unique risks may arise as different applications are developed. Materials in the nano-form may react differently to the bulk form of the same material and what we know about their characteristics may not apply.

Potential health concerns

Nanotechnology is an emerging field. It is expected to be the basis of much technological innovation in the 21st century. However, along with any new innovation there come uncertainties as to whether the unique properties of engineered nanomaterials pose an occupational health risk.

Gaps in our knowledge about the factors that are essential for predicting health risks such as routes of exposure, translocation of nanomaterial once inside the body, and the interaction of the nanomaterial with the body's biological systems are not yet fully understood.

Assessment of health risks arising from exposure to nanomaterials or other substances requires understanding of the intrinsic toxicity of the substance, the levels of exposure (by inhalation, by ingestion or through the skin) that may occur and any relationship between exposure and health effects. More data is needed on the health risks associated with exposure to engineered nanomaterials.

Where nanomaterials have an uncertain or not clearly defined toxicology and unless, or until, sound evidence is available on the hazards from inhalation, ingestion, or absorption a precautionary approach should be taken to the risk management.