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Nanomaterials - Securing the Future with Lessons from the Past

Dr. Richard J. Lee, CEO, RJ Lee Group Inc
Corresponding author: info@rjlg.com

Nanotechnology has come to symbolize the next industrial revolution in America. The opportunities to reduce the scale of products, to make materials lighter and stronger, and to design machines that perform useful functions on the micrometer and smaller scale seem endless. However, the development of these materials is not without potential risk to the producer, their employees, the consumer, or the environment. By taking advantage of lessons learned in the past, the nanotechnology industry can reach its full potential and support safe environments at the same time.

Nanotechnology has come to symbolize the next industrial revolution in America. The opportunities to reduce the scale of products, to make materials lighter and stronger, and to design machines that perform useful functions on the micrometer and smaller scale seem endless. However, the development of these materials is not without potential risk to the producer, their employees, the consumer, or the environment. By taking advantage of lessons learned in the past, the nanotechnology industry can reach its full potential and support safe environments at the same time.

The Issue

There is a lack of information on the environmental and toxicological implications of engineered nanoparticles. Of the peer-reviewed articles relating to nanotechnology and its applications that have been published in the last five years, only a limited number focus on Environmental, Safety and Health issues. Government agencies, such as National Institute of Standards (NIST) and the National laboratories, and major corporations are developing research programs to address the array of issues production, utilization, and disposal of nanomaterials and products containing nanomaterials. However much of our knowledge is currently regarded as preliminary information still pending full scale investigation.

Most importantly, as discussed in a recent nanotechnology workshop held by RJLG, the representatives of many organizations and professionals believe there is a huge void in understanding the potential hazards of nanoparticulates, as well as the correct sampling, analysis, risk assessment and control strategies.

The Need

While existing strategies can form the basis for informed decision-making, a significant amount of research and development will be needed to quantify the significance of the release of nanoparticles into the environment, and to quantify the risks to humans, animals, and the ecosystem. The sampling and analytical methods of yesterday will have or need to be extended to particles 100 times smaller than we routinely analyze today, and be compared with the results of in vitro and in vivo experiments, and longer term epidemiological results.

The History

Within the past 30 years, there have been numerous advances in the sciences of characterization for naturally occurring and incidental nano-sized particulates as well as technologies for protecting workers and the environment when working around these substances. Examples of some types of naturally occurring and anthropogenic nanoparticles include soots, welding fumes and asbestos.

The knowledge gained from working with these materials should be considered and applied to recognizing, evaluating and mitigating risks when dealing with engineered nanoparticles. Through the use of existing measurement tools, engineering controls, safe work practices/management, advances in product designs, and personal protective equipment, we can mitigate the risks of working with naturally occurring and incidental nanoparticles.

The Parallels

The asbestos mineral has several unique properties including nano-sized subcomponents that make it comparable to many of the nanoparticles being worked with today. It is a substance which took the country by storm in the 40's and 50's, because it offered the world the opportunity to improve a variety of products and processes.

Due to its thermal stability, strength, flexibility, and the ease with which it could be incorporated into products, asbestos was used in a variety of applications. Prime examples include: taller structures could be built because asbestos allowed for lighter weight fireproofing, liquid filtration was improved significantly; its strength and flexibility allowed it to be used to reinforce cement pipes, and brakes could be manufactured with longer life. Ships were insulated to reduce the spread of fire in combat operations and electrical cables were produced with greater flexibility and better insulation than previously possible.

In today's terms, the widespread adoption of asbestos containing products undoubtedly saved millions of lives, and billions of dollars by improving fire-retardant materials, reducing the cost of manufacturing, and expanding our ability to design and manufacture new products.

As we have learned in retrospect, asbestos containing materials have the potential to release fine fibrils that can penetrate deep into the lungs when inhaled and disrupt the normal dust defense mechanisms of the body. As a result, asbestos is recognized as a potential health hazard for persons exposed to sufficient quantities for a long enough period of time.

At the time of asbestos' entry into common manufacturing, the techniques required to assess exposures and evaluate the significance of those exposures were either not available or were in the infancy of their creation. Today, we can measure and control asbestos exposures, but its use has already been restricted or eliminated from many industries.

The Opportunity

Given the experience, the research methods, the analytical instruments, control strategies, and the risk assessment techniques developed in the last half-century, scientists, regulatory agencies, and managers are in a position to minimize most of the retrospective process issues that took place relative to asbestos, welding fumes, and other substances with nano-sized particles or materials. In contrast to those eras, today we have the measurement and evaluation technologies to use as indicators that can be applied to study the release of engineered nanoparticles into the environment or work place.

The Role of RJ Lee Group

RJ Lee Group is committed to developing the expertise necessary to support our clientele in the future. Our core area of expertise, microscopy, will play an integral role in both of the key areas of the nanotechnology industries: materials characterization and environmental health and safety. RJ Lee Group have made significant investments into the instrumentation required to successfully engage in the development of these arenas.

RJ Lee Group is taking advantage of their experience in environmental issues, and in the assessment of particulate emissions to provide guidance to clients on how to recognize and address potential concerns. RJ Lee Group is actively investigating methods for quantifying the size, shape, and composition of nanoparticles, and developing analytical techniques for rapid and reliable analysis of their abundance in air, water, and other matrices.

Our scientists are collaborating with instrument manufacturers, state and federal agencies, national laboratories, and producers to identify research needs. RJ Lee Group is adapting the procedures and processes used to create "use-scenarios" for materials such as asbestos or other particle releases to simulate exposures to nanoparticles during manufacturing and anticipated usage.

The strategies employed for nanoparticles and asbestos are essentially the same; the difference is that instrumentation is available to allow us to successfully assess and characterize nanoparticles while we had to wait decades for technological advances that allowed us to engage similarly in the asbestos arena. With our experience in asbestos, the nanotechnology work we are doing now, and the continuing development of our experts, RJ Lee Group will remain the firm of choice for nano-scale materials characterization and problem solving.

Source: "Nanomaterials: Securing the Future with Lessons from the Past" by Richard J. Lee

Reprint with permission from RJ Lee Group.

Date Added: Nov 15, 2009 | Updated: Jun 11, 2013
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