Photograph by Steven Higgs
IU graduate student Anne Starace explains aspects of the experiment she works on with nanoparticles. This particular experiment takes place in an IU Chemistry Department lab, inside a sealed, stainless steel chamber, so neither she nor fellow grad student Deven Shinholt are exposed to the potentially dangerous materials.
Martin Jarrold is one of about 30 IU faculty whose work on the Bloomington campus involves nanoparticles. And he’s positive that none of these atomic-sized flecks escape from his lab into the environment, endangering the health of those who work and study in the Chemistry Building.
“They can’t escape from our experiment,” the seven-year IU chemistry professor said, adding that he’s confident that’s true of his colleagues’ work, as well. “The examples I know of people using nanomaterials, … they’re not just going to get into the atmosphere.”
It’s hardly an academic question. Less than two months after Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN), wrote in a July 2009 British study that “no one to our knowledge has been harmed from being exposed to new engineered nanomaterials,” developments in China contradicted that observation.
“Seven young Chinese women suffered permanent lung damage, and two of them later died after working for months without proper protection in a paint factory using nanoparticles,” an Aug. 19 report from the Reuters news agency said.
Those illnesses and deaths were reported in a study published in the September 2009 issue of the European Respiratory Journal by researchers at the Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing. “These cases arouse concern that long-term exposure to some nanoparticles without protective measures may be related to serious damage to human lungs,” the study authors conclude.
Nanotechnology in the community
Nanotechnology produces and manipulates matter on a molecular scale. As the Washington-based PEN says on its Web site: “Nanotechnology is the science of the extremely tiny.” Roughly three to six atoms can fit inside a nanometer, depending on the atom.
Their tiny size is the primary concern about human exposure to nanoparticles. In the British study, “A beacon or just a landmark?: Reflections on the 2004 Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering Report,” Maynard noted that nanoscale materials can affect humans and the environment in unconventional ways, “getting to places and causing harm on a scale that belied their small size.”
Studies have shown that inhaled nanomaterials can penetrate the protective blood-brain barrier between the olfactory bulb and the brain and that a type of carbon nanoparticle induced more precancerous changes in rats’ lungs than a particularly potent form of asbestos.
The latest Chinese study is the first to document the dangers nanoparticles can pose to humans, Reuters reported. The seven workers were exposed while spraying paint on polystyrene boards. They developed breathing difficulties and rashes on their faces and arms after working in the factory between five and 13 months.
Writing of the nanoparticles, the researchers wrote, "Their tiny diameter means that they can penetrate the body's natural barriers, particularly through contact with damaged skin or by inhalation or ingestion.” It is impossible to remove nanoparticles once they penetrate lung cells, they noted.
PEN has called nanotechnology the “next industrial revolution” and estimates that investment in research and development is on the scale of $9 billion annually. Reuters estimates the annual market for products containing nanomaterials will be around $1 trillion by 2015.
PEN, which is a partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts, compiles an annual inventory of consumer products that claim to have nanomaterials in them. The list has exploded to more than a thousand in the 3½ years that PEN has been publishing it.
“When we launched the inventory in March 2006 we only had 212 products,” PEN Director David Rejeski said in an Aug. 25 announcement of the latest count. “If the introduction of new products continues at the present rate, the number of products listed in the inventory will reach close to 1,600 within the next two years.”
Clothing, cosmetics, personal care, sporting goods and sunscreens represent 60 percent of products listed. Of the various types of nanoparticles, silver, which are used for antimicrobial properties, account for 26 percent. The products are produced in 24 countries, including the United States, China, Canada and Germany.
Nanomaterials can also be used for a multitude of other applications, such as treating cancers, removing arsenic from water and making metals and other materials lighter, stronger and scratch-resistant.
Nanotechnology: Revolution and pollution
Jarrold said researchers at IU-Bloomington, who are part of the two-year-old Indiana University Nano Science Center, primarily come from the chemistry, physics, geology and biology departments. Their experiments generally reflect two nanotech applications.
One is related to biology, where many processes occur on nano-length scales, Jarrold said. Viruses, for example, have nanometer-length scale, and one IU project focuses on how they assemble. Understanding that could lead to new ways to combat viral infections.
“There’s lot of interest from a number of people here in understanding these aspects,” he said. “We sort of call this nano-bio.”
The other is energy-related research, dealing with things like catalysts, he said. These are usually small metal particles whose dimensions are a few nanometers. Among the possible applications is improved means of capturing energy from sunlight.
“At the end of the day most of our energy is going to come from sunlight,” Jarrold said.
The Jarrold Group, as his research team is known in the Chemistry Building, studies the chemical properties of small particles, Jarrold said, citing their melting temperatures and conductivity as examples.
“When I say ‘small’ here, I mean they are small enough that we know how many atoms there are, where it matters whether you have 55 atoms or whether you have 56 atoms. The difference between 55 and 56 can make a big difference in the properties.”
The group recently received money to investigate superconductivity in these small particles. “We’re able to look at individual sizes and say, ‘This size is what you should be aiming to make because this size is particularly reactive.’”
Neither Jarrold's nor any of the 11 other research groups in the Chemistry Building utilize any special safety precautions when dealing with nanoparticles, he said, adding that he’s not even aware of any that exist.
"When I say ‘small’ here, I mean they are small enough that we know how many atoms there are."- Martin Jarrold, IU Chemistry professor
And while he doesn’t believe it is wise for antibacterial silver nanoparticles to be applied to baby’s bottoms in wet wipes, for example, Jarrold said there isn’t cause for concern over the nano experiments being conducted by Chemistry Department researchers.
His confidence is rooted in the types of experiments conducted and the types of nanomaterials used.
The Jarrold Group’s experiments take place inside enclosed, stainless steel chambers, where the nanoparticles are never in contact with the air.
Inside Jarrold’s lab, graduate student Anne Starace said materials like aluminum are put in the sealed chamber and reduced to nano-size particles with a laser, heat, and gases. Throughout the experiment, the nanoparticles attach to equipment surfaces. So many hit each surface that a thin film of metal is formed from what used to be nanoparticles. The residue is then simply wiped away.
Elsewhere in the building, the nanoparticles used are almost always in solution, and they’re not volatile anyway, Jarrold added.
“They’re not just going to get into the atmosphere,” he said. "I would not be concerned about this in our department, with what’s happening here."
Steven Higgs’ latest article on nanotechnology, “Mama, Dada and Nano?: Subparticles May Be Toxic for Kids” is in the October issue of The Progressive magazine. He can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.