PORTLAND, Ore. A Washington think tank is investigating development of a universal monitor for nanomaterials.
"The question we face today is whether nanomaterials can be economically tested in the workplace," said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars "One of our goals is to foster the development of a universal aerosol monitor for nanomaterials to be used in the workplace."
Nanomaterials are already being manufactured with nanostructures similar to toxic workplace substances like asbestos. For now, there is no easy way to test the health effects of nanomaterials.
"Since nanomaterials are already being produced worldwide, there is some urgency to developing a universal aerosol monitor for the workplace," said Rejeski. "The principle issue is that any such detector will have to measure multiple parameters. It's not just their small size that makes nanomaterials toxic," he added. "Sometimes its their structure or shape, sometimes its their surface chemistry or their charge. Its not going to be enough just to detect how much of a nanomaterial is present."
It's also not yet possible to measure workplace exposure, according to Rejeski, "and the larger issue is what will happen when these materials escape the manufacturing facility. Where are they going to go and how are they going to effect the population?"
Standard monitoring procedures are in place for most known toxic materials. But current monitoring techniques measure only the amount of material present, comparing that against known toxic exposure levels. Until the necessary parameters are determined for nanomaterials, it remains impossible to measure toxicity or monitor exposure.
"Our regulatory system depends on being able to make measurements," said Rejeski. "If you can't take measurements, then their is no way to regulate a material."
In the first issue of the new journal Nanotoxicology, researcher Andrew Maynard describes possible solutions for monitoring nanomaterials. Maynard and co-author Robert Aitken questioned the conventional approach to aerosol exposure measurements which characterizes health hazards by the amount of material present per unit volume of air. Instead, they claim nanomaterials should be classified by health-impact attributes, including physical shape and chemical structure.
They divided nanoparticles into nine categories ranging from spherical particles to very complex structures. Each category was evaluated according to potential health effects and possible monitoring approaches for each were explored. The researchers concluded that no universal aerosol monitor is possible today, but monitor development remains a "grand challenge."
The authors also estimated that a universal aerosol monitor for nanomaterials would cost about $50 million to develop.
A universal aerosol monitor would likely be wearable and cheap enough to protect most nanotechnology workers. The nanotech industry is expected to employ more than 10 million workers worldwide by 2014, the researchers estimated. There are currently over 400 types of nanomaterials being manufactured, ranging from semiconductors to dietary supplements. The market is expected to jump from more than $30 billion market today to $2.6 trillion by 2014.