Tiny Materials in Many Products Raise Questions for Environment, Health

"In recent years, efforts to develop the Next Big Thing — whether in medicine, computer technology, pollution prevention or high-performance materials — have turned to some really, really small things: nanomaterials.

Working at the nanoscale — which can mean the near-atomic scale, with substances a million times shorter than the length of an ant, a thousand times thinner than human hair — brings the ability to create new materials that can perform tasks in ways that might not otherwise be possible. But it also brings new concerns and challenges related to understanding environmental and human health impacts, because at the nanoscale, substances often take on chemical, biological and physical properties they might not otherwise have and behave in ways they might not at conventional sizes.

While definitions differ, nanomaterials typically measure in at a length, width, height or diameter of about 1 to 100 nanometers — 1 to 100 billionths of a meter. They take advantage of the physical, chemical and other characteristics substances exhibit at this miniscule size. At the nanoscale, materials can have different boiling points, different magnetic properties and different optical properties (color, fluorescence or transparency). They can conduct electricity or permeate and interact with living cells and other materials in ways they do not at larger sizes. And simply because they are so small, nanomaterials are capable of moving in ways and to places — whether in the environment or the human body — larger compounds cannot."

Elizabeth Grossman reports for Ensia December 2, 2015.

Source: Ensia, 12/04/2015