This week we talked about nanotechnology and we had a guest lecture by Professor Gimzewski, but you already knew that. You also probably already know what Gimzewski spoke about, so I am just going to jump into what I found interesting about his presentation. The first thing that comes to mind is Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs). While Gimzewski did not specifically mention MSDSs, he spoke about toxicity research - or lack there of - on nanoparticles. Nanoparticles are being integrated into consumer products despite the fact that little is known about the effect nanoparticles have on our health and on the environment. A few weeks ago, I went to a presentation by Dr. Jim Hutchison (Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Material Science Institute, University of Oregon) where he spoke about nano- and green nanotechnology. He too spoke about the lack of understanding surrounding the environmental and health related implications of nanoparticles. He mentioned that, of all the nanoparticles that have been created, none have been quantitatively analyzed for toxic properties and only one has a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). According to Hutchison, the nanoparticle with an MSDS is carbon nanotubes and the information provided is laughable. For example, he said, the recommended protection, when handling carbon nanotubes, is a dust mask which would be of little or no use as nanoparticles are small enough to pass right through a dust mask. In the case of spilled carbon nanotubes, the MSDS suggests, sweeping them up with a broom, said Hutchison. It is disconcerting to hear that nanoparticles are being adopted in many products with no regard for the implications nanoparticles might have, especially when their adoption is being fueled, not necessarily or entirely by the properties they exhibit, but by the marketing buzz that surrounds products with nanoparticles. Nanoparticles are unlike any materials that have been used in the past, because they are engineered to exhibit specific material properties, which, unlike chemical properties, are permanent. Silver nanoparticles, which display anti-microbial properties now, will still exhibit the exact same anti-microbial properties in one, two, even three hundred years from now unless the nanoparticles are physically altered at some point. As I mentioned in my post about Hutchison’s presentation, silver nanoparticles are currently being used in consumer grade clothing. Hutchison’s research demonstrated that the majority of silver nanoparticles in clothing available to the public washes off in less than ten washes. All of the particles washed off these items of clothing make their way into public waterways and yet, we have no information regarding their toxicity.
I think nanotechnology is a fascinating field and has amazing potential, but care must be taken to make sure we don’t rush into an environmental disaster for the sake of having silver nanoparticle socks that keep our feet smelling fresh or nanoparticle sun tan lotion that whitens our teeth.

Enrico Mills


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