Nanotechnology is the generic name given to the production or use of very small, or "nano" particles. These are particles that are less than 100 nanometers or about one-thousandth the width of a human hair. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter.
Nanotechnology is likely to be extremely important in the future as it allows materials to be built up atom by atom. This can lead to the development of new materials that are better suited for their purpose. There are several branches of nanotechnology, but most of them are in an early stage with the only nanotechnologies that are commercially available at present being ultra fine powders and coatings. These are used in a variety of products including sunscreens and self-cleaning glass, but the list of materials being developed commercially using nanotechnology is likely to grow at a very fast rate.
Other forms of nanotechnology being developed include tiny sensors called nano-units, of which some simple types are available: "smart materials" that change in response to light or heat; "nano-bots" - tiny mobile robots that have yet to be developed but are theoretically possible; and self-assembling nano-materials that can be assembled into larger equipment.
TUC worries that while nanotechnology could lead to significant developments in medicine, manufacturing and computing, it may also bring significant new health hazards.
"Although most of the press coverage has been on the dangers of 'nano-goo,' such as self-replicating particles that get out of control, or the 'nano-robots' of Michael Creighton's 'Prey,' the real risks are much more simple and real," notes the factsheet from TUC.
According to TUC, nanoparticles are likely to be dangerous for three main reasons. First, many may damage the lungs. Ultra fine particles from diesel machines, power plants and incinerators can cause considerable damage to human lungs. This is both because of their size (as they can get deep into the lungs) and also because they carry other chemicals including metals and hydrocarbons in with them.
Second, nanoparticles can get into the body through the skin, lungs and digestive system. This may help create free radicals that can cause cell damage. There is also concern that once nanoparticles are in the bloodstream, they will be able to cross the blood-brain barrier.
Third, the human body has developed a tolerance to most naturally occurring elements and molecules that it has contact with. It has no natural immunity to new substances and is more likely to find them toxic.
"The danger of contact with nanoparticles is not just speculation. Research has shown that some nanoparticles do cause lung damage in rats, while others have been shown to lead to brain damage in fish and dogs," says the factsheet. "At the moment no one knows for certain how dangerous the many different types of nanoparticles are likely to be to humans. However it is important that we do not allow workers to be exposed to an unknown danger where effects may not be known for years, even decades."
These risks were highlighted in a report from the Royal Society that said, "Nanotechnology offers many potential benefits, but its development must be guided by appropriate safety assessments and regulation to minimize any possible risks to people and the environment." It also called for tighter regulations.
An insurance company, Swiss Re, has already been quoted as warning that the uncertainty about the risks that nanotechnology and nano-pollution pose means that they currently will not offer insurance to the industry.
The UK's Health and Safety Executive already has urged employers to take a precautionary approach and ensure that workers are not exposed to nanoparticles. It states that, "as the risks arising from exposure to many types of nanoparticles are not yet completely understood, control strategies should be based on a principle of reducing exposure as much as possible."
For unions, says TUC, that means seeking to ensure that the production and use of nanoparticles is done within a contained process so that employees are not exposed to any potential unknown risk.
"It is important that unions act now to ensure that we do not have a rerun of the asbestos tragedy, where hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to a killer dust that even today kills over 3,000 people a year," said TUC.
For more information on nanotechnology see the HSE Web site on www.hse.gov.uk. For information about nanotechnology in the United States, read "AOHC: NIOSH Chief Offers Predictions for Future of Work" and "Howard: Nanotechnology Represents an "Exciting Challenge" for EHS."