Keeping an eye on the nanos

February 19, 2010   by Noelle Stapinsky, Features Editor

The creation of carbon peapod nanotubes, an experiment performed by the Materials Department at the University of Oxford in the UK.

Illustration: Karl G. Nyman, University of Oxford

Nanotechnology, the almost mythical science that manipulates atomic and molecular-sized matter, has so far generated more than 600 nanotechnology-based consumer products, but little is known about the material’s tiny particles or how they affect health and the environment. As the development and use of nanomaterials grows rapidly worldwide, so do concerns about worker and user safety.

Manufacturers who make or use nanomaterials are not subject to regulations yet, but the Canadian government is moving in that direction, albeit cautiously.

To gain a better perspective on the world of nanos, Industry Canada, Health Canada and Environment Canada recruited the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) to review any scientific evidence of safety and risks around nanomaterials. The CCA pulled together a multi-disciplinary panel of scientists, lawyers, philosophers and sociologists from Canada and the US to create a science-based assessment of known risks and it submitted a report in the summer of 2008.

The report concludes more detailed data is needed from industry about which nanomaterials are going where, how they affect the environment and their impact on the health of people exposed to them. The panel had little faith voluntary measures would be effective, but it also acknowledged enforcing regulations would be a challenge.

More than a year after the report was submitted, Health Canada continues to “build its capacity to regulate nanonmaterials.”

In an e-mail response to a query from Canadian PLANT on the status of nano-regulations, Health Canada spokesman Gary Holub said, “The CCA’s report was a catalyst for discussion within Health Canada, which has led the department to adopt a broad policy approach to nanomaterials, one which will take an incremental approach to address regulatory, science and policy needs while allowing for the integration of new scientific evidence as it becomes available.”

To give you an idea just how tiny nanoparticles are, they have one or more dimension on a nanoscale measured in nanometres (nm). One nm is about 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

The particles are developed from a variety of materials for industry applications that include medicine, food, cosmetics, clothing, energy, electronics, automotive coatings and aerospace.

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