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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > ONAMI > Nano Week in Seattle - Monday June 8

Skip Rung
President and Executive Director

The ISO meetings are off and running, and the Nanotechnology Health and Safety Forum is a standing-room-only smash hit.

June 8th, 2009

Nano Week in Seattle - Monday June 8

The ISO TC 229 Plenary 2009 meeting opened this morning with presentations from ANSI, RTI and Siemens. A number of interesting emerging nanotechnology applications (such as anti-wetting coating on power lines to reduce shorting) were new to many in the audience. Encouraging mention was made by these large organizations of the importance of entrepreneurial startups for early stage commercialization.

Joint Working Group 1 (nomenclature and terminology) convened for an initial summary of its various subprojects. Some earlier proposed terms, such as "nanovoids", are discarded ("nanopores" covers this concept adequately). A more significant issue is whether the useful (IMHO) distinction between "nano objects" (nanoparticles, nanorods, nanotubes and nanoflakes with one or more dimensions less than 100nm) and "nanostructured materials" (larger objects such as deposited films involving nano-precursors, nanotexturing, or multilayering) will be able to arrive at final wordsmithing acceptable to all the countries represented in JWG 1. Some are troubled by the possibility of overlap/fuzziness between the two large categories. Others don't see a problem.

The highlight today was the opening of our companion Nanotechnology Health and Safety Forum to an enthusiastic standing-room-only group. The outstanding opening presentation by Kenneth Dawson of University College Dublin and the first two (of four) units ("framing the unknown", "nanoEHS perspective") generated plenty of thought provoking discussion that went right to the heart of the nanotechnology EHS issues.

Dawson asked the group, "Can nanotechnology be the safest major techology introduction yet?" and if we thought we could aspire to "no mistakes on our watch", given the excellent science opportunities and promising sense of community that is developing around nanomaterial-biological system interactions. Others asked in response if such expectations set us up for failure and also fail to properly calibrate the public vis a vis risk/reward balance. One questioner pointed out that everyone's favorite bogey, asbestos, accounted for 'only' 2000 deaths/year (far fewer than automobiles and other things we are comfortable with) and that the initial decision to use it (for heat shielding of pipes that might otherwise have caused fatal fires) might have been a good trade off at the time. This elicited at least one gasp from another participant who cited what is now known about the very serious toxicity of asbestos, but the conversation during the day did return several times to the necessity of placing risks (and benefits) in proper perspective.

The usefulness of the term "nanomaterials" also came under fire, with some noting that it has yet to be used for regulatory purposes. What really counts may be what is truly new in the way of "unique structure or molecular arrangement" and/or classes/ranges of materials that are taken into cells and cleared (or not) from cells via different mechanisms than ordinary molecules.

Other presentations showed significant advances in experimental elucidation of SWCNT toxicity mechanisms, but were also sobering in terms of things such as the ability to accurately assess dosage - a critical need for any toxicology that hopes to reach conclusions more detailed than "you should be careful".

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