GEH1104:      Nanotechnology - Brave New World or Environmental Health Calamity?

Speaker:           Maurice Brennan         



Attend this session to examine the current scientific thinking on the risks posed by nanomaterials to human health and the environment, and examine the implications for environmental health practitioners in safeguarding their communities.         




Nanomaterials are defined as those which are less than 100nm in size and which display novel properties. At this level many compounds take on new physical and chemical properties which cannot be explained by classical physics and chemistry, and which they do not exhibit in the bulk stage above this size range. Their novel functionality affects their strength, electrical properties, thermal conductivity and the ability to change known properties. Most importantly, they have a very high surface area to mass which makes them much more reactive1. Substances made using nanotechnology should be considered new chemicals and undergo extra safety checks before they hit the market to ensure they do not pose a threat to human health2, and give rise to new risks3.The Woodrow Wilson Centre Consumer database advises there are currently 1014 products which contain nanomaterials, on the open market, which will be worth $1 trillion by 20154. They are to be found in a wide variety of products from cosmetics and personal care to car tyres, electrostatic coatings, computers, pharmaceuticals and clothing. However, there are concerns that little detailed risk assessment has been undertaken as to their long term impact on human health and the environment.

Discovered nearly 20 years ago, carbon nanotubes have been described as the wonder material for the 21st Century. It is light as plastic and stronger that steel, and is being developed for a wide range of uses from new pharmaceuticals to futuristic electronics. Leading forecasters say sales of all carbon nanotubes could reach $2 billion annually within the next four to seven years5. Yet recent research6 has determined that the tubes have the capability to act pathologically in a similar fashion to asbestos fibres in the lung tissue.

The paper will examine the current scientific thinking on the risks posed by nanomaterials to human health and the environment, and consider the role which environmental health practitioners will have to play in safeguarding  their communities.