Nanotechnology, asbestos and measurement

By Marcus Wilson 04/02/2014

Last week I had a very interesting and useful visit to the Measurement Standards Laboratory in Lower Hutt. I went along with my summer scholarship student to discuss the measurement of electrical properties of biological tissue. While the procedure for measuring the conductivity of a piece of solid is pretty-well established, biological tissue is soft, squishy, easily damaged, reacts chemically with what you try to measure it with,  and changes its properties considerably between 'alive' and 'dead' states. There's no clear-cut method here.  

We were also shown around some of the labs. What I found particularly interesting is the progress towards ditching the kilogram. By that I don't mean getting rid of the unit and using pounds and ounces, I mean doing away with the need to have a single, standard kilogram locked away in Paris. One can get away with this problematic beast through using a Watt Balance machine and defining Planck's constant. More on that later, I think.

But today's blog entry is about a discussion I had one evening in a cafe in Wellington train station, with a friend of mine who works for what is now known as Worksafe. As their name suggests, their purpose is to ensure  workplaces are healthy and safe (Not that this replaces the obligation on everyone to ensure a safe work environment, I should add.)  My friend has been having some discussion around the health issues associated with nanotechnology. Engineering tiny things has opened a huge range of possibilities – intensely strong fibres, minature motors, molecular-sized electronics – it's all possible, and it's going to get more common place. But have the risks of such technology been thought about? More specifically, are the monitoring processes keeping track with the development of the technology. My friend refers to nanotechnology as 'The asbestosis of the future'. That might prove to be unfounded, but the point is we simply don't know. Asbestos was a wonder-material that has been used intensively in the 20th century and a huge number of buildings (including the one I'm sitting in as I write this) is loaded with the stuff. It makes a great fire retardant and insulator, with the teeny-weeny drawback that inhaling asbestos dust can kill you. It is a massive headache for Worksafe as the whole country is full of the stuff – cue the story about the arguments between EQC, insurance companies and ACC regarding what to do with the great many earthquake damaged houses found to contain (now exposed) asbestos.

And nanotechnology could follow. By definition, it consists of tiny, tiny particles. What will they do in someone's lungs for twenty years? Who knows? How does one monitor the exposure to nanotechnology? That's maybe a more useful question to ask, and one to pursue properly. We have measures of exposure to radiation, for example, that we can apply to those who work with it, so what about a practical measure of nanotechnology exposure, that can be implemented in a workplace? An open question.