The Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS) at UCSB hosted an International Nanotechnology Occupational Health and Safety Conference on the 16th and 17th of November to discuss health and safety concerns with the laboratories and workplaces engaged in research, development, and commercialization of products employing nanoscale materials.
According to its Mission Statement, the UCSB-CNS serves “a national research and education center, a network hub among researchers and educators concerned with nanotechnologies’ societal impacts, and a resource base for studying these impacts in the US and abroad.”
This frontier of research is defined by the National Nanotechnology Initiative as “the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers (nm), where unique phenomena enable novel applications” (http://www.nano.gov/html/facts/whatIsNano.html).
1nm equals one billionth of a meter. By way of comparison, a human hair is roughly 80,000 nanometers thick. Nanotechnology is a multidisciplinary field in which scientists and engineers fuse together physics, chemistry, and biology to transfigure electronic circuits, engineer biomolecular technologies, and create new materials using nano-sized building blocks, such as carbon nanotubes.
The potential growth in Nanotechnology in the next decade is significant. Professor Richard Appelbaum, a CNS executive committee member, cites studies by Lux Research (a firm that tracks nanotechnology globally) that predict it will create a $2.6 trillion dollar industry by 2014. In this highly innovative and rapidly-globalizing field, it is imperative to understand the power dynamics regarding potential risks of nanotechnology in occupational health and safety.
Paul Schulte, from the Centers for Disease Control, laid out the steps of Risk Management for workers as: Hazard Identification, Exposure Assessment, Risk Characterization, and Risk Management. How well these steps are enforced, at all levels of production, from research, development, consumer use, to disposal was a large focus of the conference. There is concern whether there will be sufficient cooperation, transparency and accountability between academia, government, and industry, given the predicted explosive growth of this field. The toxic risks mainly involve the ingestion of nanoscale particles that can penetrate the blood-brain barrier. Very little is currently known about the nature of these risks, and federal health and safety standards “most of which date back more than two decades” provide inadequate guidelines. Conference participants focused on the importance of developing a better understanding of nanotoxicology, including guidelines for health and safety protection, before a laboratory of industrial accident resulted in a public perception that the burgeoning industry posed unacceptable levels of risk.
Nancy Lessin, from the United Steel Workers, made a crucial point by comparing nano-particles to the toxic diacetyl, used in “butter flavoring.” This additive is known to induce bronchiolitis obliterans in the lungs of workers in the popcorn plant industry. She poses the question, “in a situation where we know of dangers –and protection cannot be enforced – in the new field of nanotechnology how are the power dynamics going to be different?”
Currently in Eling Hall on campus there is a “Too small to see” nanotechnology exhibit, which combines simple diagrams and practical participatory examples to learn about this modern technology at the forefront of scientific development and spread awareness of the huge impact this will have on our future.
One thing that is important to understand is that if research and production in this industry is not cautiously monitored with careful assessment of the long-term effects from the start, its negative impact could outweigh its positive breakthroughs in this exciting new field of science. This is why the role of CNS is of critical significance to Nanotechnologies progress and success in global affairs.