Nano-silver. Nano-tubes. Nano-particle HD makeup. All kinds of nanomaterials exist in mainstream consumer products and in emerging technologies. They are slowly making their way onto labels, but because nanotechnology is so new, the effects of nanomaterials on humans and the environment are largely unknown. This should cause concern among consumers and even more among those who work directly in the nanomaterials industry.
That is the reason for a new milestone in nanotechnology engineering called NE 102: Nanotechnology Health Risks. This optional milestone, occurring during class seminar time, aims to help students understand toxicological, exposure assessment and risk assessment issues surrounding nanomaterial products. The syllabus emphasizes the importance of critically analyzing studies and how to differentiate hard facts from speculation and generalizations. It also acknowledges that the nanotechnology field is constantly evolving and equips students to enforce their rights in the workplace, even though employers may not always have the most current safety standards.
The reason why nanomaterials require a different Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) than their macromaterial counterparts is that their scale affects how the body responds to them. When you have particles that are much smaller than blood cells and can permeate selective biological barriers, their long-term health effects are extremely difficult to track. They can stay embedded in tissue forever or translocate all over the body. They could cause damaging biochemical reactions that far outweigh their practical benefits or they could be completely benign and save lives in medicine. Of course there are ongoing studies, but they are funded by organizations with varying degrees of bias and diligence, so we cannot really compare them and draw conclusions.
The reality is that there is no international regulatory body or standards dictating how to handle nanomaterials because they are so new. Research returns inconsistent results and the media fails to report on experimental methods. For example, many headlines will say that carbon nanotubes (CNTs) cause cancer in the same way that asbestos does. This is misleading because, although CNTs and asbestos are similar in shape and biopersistence, studies suggest that CNTs cause oncogenes via a different mechanism than asbestos and thus they cannot be assumed to have the same toxicology.
Nanotoxicology is one the topics covered by the Nanomaterials Health Risks Milestone. Others include Nanomateirals Exposure, Consumer Products and Ecotoxicology, and Risks and Benefits. There are 32 lectures by Dr. Laura Deakin which last up until 3B, with a few tests and assignments. It is a pass or fail credit, and a prerequisite for the NE 201 lectures on nanotoxicology and decoding MSDS sheets. It was developed this summer with input from Dr. McCourt and Dr. Ioannidis of the nanotechnology program, and will constantly adapt as a necessary, possibly becoming a mandatory milestone in the future.
“I’m excited about this new milestone as it presents UW nanotechnology engineering graduates with a background in their field that is unmatched by other institutions.” says Dr. Deakin. Although there is no course credit received for the milestone, it will appear on transcripts and will likely be something employers are interested in. Above all, it’s in students’ best interest to differentiate between exaggerations, understatements and hard facts, and to be able to communicate this with co-workers in the nanomaterials industry, occupational health and safety hygienists and physicians.
Health and safety standards are there for a reason, but we cannot blindly trust them to be enough. It’s reassuring to know that Waterloo is teaching self-protection in the workplace so that we can prevent illness before it’s too late.