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The environmental impact of nanomaterials


Rick Kelly, Environmental Health Safety Manager/Berkely Lab:
The thing about nanoparticles that's a little confusing is that chemically, in terms of the chemicals involved, they're the same as anything else. We know all the chemicals on the earth and we've worked with all the chemicals on the earth, so chemistry - there's really no difference.

What's different though is the structure and the size. We make things with different shapes, different forms, different modifications, we make them on the nanoscale. All of a sudden they start doing things which nobody's ever seen before. New good stuff for the most part, but mixed into that is the concern that maybe in at least some of the cases, the new stuff that's going to evolve out of nanotechnology is potentially harmful to workers or to the environment or even to consumers.

A lot of sunscreens contain nanoscale zinc oxide or nanoscale titanium oxide and it looks to be a perfectly fine thing to do, but there is this concern that we might start marketing things before we fully understand their hazards and therefore, they become a hazard to the environment and to the public at large.

Even though we don't really understand all of the toxicity of materials, there are general rules that can be applied, that can insure that they are in fact safe. As it stands now, there is close to nothing...very little for government regulation of nanomaterials and they only real regulation that exists now has to do with the EPA and the registering of new nanomaterials. There's been no standards set that tells us what's a safe level of exposure to these nanoscale materials to one of our scientists, post-docs or visitors that's working in the foundry.

So, as a result we put into place very conservative controls, we treat them as if they're toxic, even if we don't know if they're toxic, with the intent protecting people in the environment until we know for sure whether or not these materials are going to be hazardous. In terms of environmental impact and occupational health, I think it's absolutely appropriate that the state takes a very active interest in looking into this.