A University of Tokyo researcher, Norio Taniguchi, is believed to have first used the term ‘nanotechnology’ in 1974 to describe engineering materials at the nanometre scale. The term ‘nanotechnology’ has become more widely used in recent years to describe small particles of matter at the nanometre or molecular scale. A nanometre (nm) is a very small unit of measurement, equalling one thousand millionth of a metre.
The examples below give an idea of the scale of nanotechnology:
A human hair is approximately 100 000 nm in diameter.
A piece of paper is around 100 000 nm thick.
A water molecule (H2O) is about 0.22 nm across.
Nanoscale materials come in many different forms. Food and drinking water naturally comprise particles in the nanometre scale, and humans have always been exposed to nanometre-scale particles from things like smoke, dust, ash, and fine clays through air, food and water. It is estimated that people inhale around 10 million nanometre scale particles in every breath.
Are consumer products containing nano particles safe?
There are theories that nanotechnology may carry health risks associated with inhaling ultra-fine particulates in occupational settings. More than a century of research covers risks associated with inhaling ultra-fine particles of matter in the workplace, including causation of illnesses such as black lung, silicosis, asbestosis and mesothelioma.
Workers in industrial settings where nanotechnology is used are more likely to experience risks associated with exposure to free nano-scale particles than people using consumer products.
The 2009 Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) report Exposure to nanomaterials in consumer products identified several consumer products that could lead to high exposure to nanoparticles. These products include:
oral hygiene products
supplements and health products
fuel for motor vehicles (after combustion)
do-it-yourself (DIY) coatings, glues and cleaning products.
The potential side-effects of exposure are unknown and there is no evidence about them.
The National Enabling Technologies Strategy (NETS)
The National Enabling Technologies Strategy (NETS) under the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRTE) provides a framework for the responsible development of enabling technologies such as nanotechnology and other new technologies as they emerge in Australia. For more information, visit www.innovation.gov.au/nets.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is one of a number of regulators participating in the inter-governmental Health Safety and Environment Working Group to assess current processes for ensuring the safety of products made with nano particles.
As a consumer product regulator, the ACCC determines the health risks of consumer products containing nano-scale materials by investigating the possible:
hazards in the composite materials in products
potential exposure to these nano materials when using the product.
So far, research into the migration of nano particles embedded into the matrix of composite materials such as plastics and metal alloys shows that no measurable migration occurs.
If future investigations show any risks of serious illness or death associated with nanotechnology in consumer products, regulators can develop bans and mandatory safety standards to minimise those risks.
The ACCC will continue to monitor regulatory activity and scientific research around the world to ensure that any hazards associated with the use of nano-scale substances in consumer products are identified and managed appropriately.
Most modern work health and safety (WH&S) legislation covers the potential harm related to inhaling fine particles. Employers are aware of these potential hazards and the liability they can create for employees and business prospects.
Suppliers are responsible for ensuring the safety of their products and they should consider the safety and suitability of any substances used in their products at the design stage. Product labels, instructions for safe use and material safety data sheets are important aspects of managing these risks.
Suppliers should note that regulatory approval processes and pre-market safety assessment for foods, medicines and chemicals apply to all relevant substances, including those containing nano-scale particles.
The USA Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Consumer Products Inventory, as of 10 March 2011 listed 1,317 products using nanotechnology, across 30 countries. The largest main category of products is health and fitness (which includes products like cosmetics and sunscreens), with a total of 738 products. The most common materials mentioned in the 1,317 products in this inventory were: