Safety Matters: Under the Microscope

Thursday 29th May 2014

Sometimes known as the “science of the small”, nanotechnology builds materials from something microscopic rather than something big. This is engineering using the tiniest of scales. 

The technology breaks down substances into particles and either uses or manipulates their natural properties to exploit such qualities as better strength, lighter weight, increased light control, and greater chemical response.

Industries as diverse as aviation, automotive, computing, agriculture, food manufacture and packaging, diagnostics and therapeutics rely on nanotechnology every day to drive their dollar further. Commercial application of more than 800 items containing nanomaterials have already been developed with sunscreens, food, building materials and cosmetics leading the pack.


Very few (and conclusive) long-term health studies have been conducted on the behaviour of nanoparticles if they are inhaled or absorbed through the skin, although they could possibly be hazardous because of their size, surface area and toxicity.

Research has shown that multi-walled carbon nanotubes (cylindrical molecules) share similar needle-thin characteristics as asbestos fibres. Other research has reported that when nano materials are deposited in the stomach or lung, they may enter the bloodstream and spread to the liver and brain.


Q&A with Professor Malcolm Sim


Professor Malcolm Sim is an occupational physician and epidemiologist at Monash University. He specialises in the risks associated with occupational chronic diseases.


How many worker come into contact with nanotechnology?
“The short answer is we have no idea. It’s an industry that’s changing regularly, and it’s difficult to identify the workers in the industry.”

Will the industry grow?
“Yes, but we will need better monitoring and measuring equipment.”

What do we know about the health and safety implications of 


“There has been some animal research done that suggests there are some pathological changes in the chest that mimic some of the pathological changes with asbestos fibres. There is no animal work yet that has determined that it’s the cause of mesothelioma (a rare form of cancer)."

So, where is all this heading?

“In the short term, the International Agency for Research on Cancer is meeting in Lyon, France later this year. They’re going to review all the current evidence, and then we’ll have a clearer picture of the safety of these materials.”