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June 10, 2015

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Nanotechnology: safety on a small scale

A scanning electron micrograph (SEM) showing the structure of one of the blankets, which includes nano-sized particles, probably silicon dioxide

A scanning electron micrograph (SEM) showing the structure of one of the blankets, which includes nano-sized particles, probably silicon dioxide

The use of nanotechnology is increasing, but the associated health and safety risks are not yet fully understood. Dr Wendy Jones examines how this new science might affect those working in construction and demolition.

Our ‘managing nanomaterials in the construction industry’ research, funded by IOSH, is identifying products used in construction that contain nanomaterials or have been developed using nanotechnology. We are exploring the potential health impact of these products, particularly for those involved during demolition, to provide guidance for OSH professionals and others involved with the built environment.

Nanotechnology involves manipulating substances at a molecular level, or working with materials containing particles which have dimensions of less than 100 nm (a nanometre is a billionth of a metre – a human hair is about 80,000 nm in diameter).

These materials have exciting new properties which are giving us, for example, highly effective sun creams, antibacterial coatings and ultra-high capacity computer storage. However, across the world, the study of the associated health and safety risks is at a relatively early stage. This can make it difficult for safety and health professionals to get the right information to assess and manage the risks associated with these materials. Much of the previous work has concentrated on those working in factories that produce nanomaterials.

From our research so far we are finding that the use of nanomaterials and nanotechnology in the construction process is limited. In particular, it seems that carbon nanotubes (some of which may have characteristics similar to asbestos) are only being used in very specialised or trial materials. More commonly used are materials such as silicon dioxide and titanium dioxide which do not appear to be as problematic for health. These are found, for example, in self-compacting concrete, self-cleaning windows and high performance insulation materials (see photos). The quantities involved appear to be very small. However, it is difficult to identify exactly what is being used and in what way, as the labelling of nano-enabled products is poor and many safety data sheets provide very limited information.

A range of nano-enabled insulation blankets

A range of nano-enabled insulation blankets

The second stage of our research involves exposing some of these products to demolition-type processes and looking at the likelihood of nanoparticles being released. This will enable us to provide guidance on recommended risk control measures for those installing these products into buildings or removing them at the end of a building’s life.

These tests take time: the research project is only due to be completed at the end of 2016, but an interim report is planned for later this year. A number of research publications have already been produced, mainly detailing the background of the research and details of the methodology. Further papers are planned over the next two to three years and Loughborough University will work with IOSH to produce a guidance document for health and safety practitioners.

HSE’s website provides useful background information and guidance on regulation and risk assessment for nanotechnology. Also, guidance and a risk assessment tool are due to be published shortly from an EU project looking at the risk management of nanomaterials in the construction industry (but with little focus on demolition).

Useful resources:

http://scaffold.eu-vri.eu/
www.hse.gov.uk/nanotechnology

Loughborough University’s project is led by Royal Academy of Engineering professor Alistair Gibb, whose team in the School of Civil and Building Engineering – Wendy Jones, Phil Bust and Chris Goodier – is working in collaboration with the Department of Materials.

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