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Is the Nano Technology used in Building Materials Safe?

As 2019 starts, I took some time to reflect on 2018 and the safety challenges that we helped our clients meet. 2018 was an interesting year, it started with a flurry of silica training classes to get clients up to speed on the new OSHA standard which became enforceable on September 23, 2017. The silica standard was an interesting one, silica has been a known hazard to workers since 1938 when the film “Stop Silicosis” featured Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins warning everyone about the effect’s silica has on the human lung. When we first started hearing about the new silica standard in late 2015, it was shocking to me that silica was such a hazard. I started working in construction in 1992 and did not hear about the dangers of inhaling silica from concrete dust until I was in safety and not in the field any longer. At this point I am scared to death to go get my lungs x-rayed, I drilled and chipped a lot of concrete in my time. It took the world 79 years to enact measures strong enough to protect workers from the hazards of silica. OSHA had previously set permissible exposure limits in 1971 but according to OSHA’s Silica Fact Sheet, “OSHA’s current permissible exposure limits (PELs) for crystalline silica were adopted in 1971 and have not been updated since that time. They do not adequately protect workers; they are outdated, inconsistent and hard to understand.”

“Some of the nanoparticles that could be used for these features are nano silica (silica fume)”

Nano werk, Nanotechnology in the Construction Industry

It’s amazing how slow the “safety engine” runs when it comes to protecting workers from hazards. Which brings me to my point, nanotechnology is now being used in building materials. If you are like me, you are probably asking yourself “what the heck is nanotechnology?” By definition; Nanotechnology is science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers. Nanoscience and nanotechnology are the study and application of extremely small things and can be used across all the other science fields, such as chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering. How small are nanomaterials? There are 25,400,000 nanometers in an inch. A sheet of newspaper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. On a comparative scale, if a marble were a nanometer, then one meter would be the size of the Earth. I’ll be the first to tell you that I am no genius, but it doesn’t take a genius to know that there are far more nanomaterials in an inch than respirable silica. It came as a shock to me when I read the Safety & Health Magazine article “ Awareness of nanotechnology used in materials low among California construction workers: survey” that these nanomaterials are being used by these companies, in these construction materials:

Company Product
Advanced GlazingWindows insulated with Aerogel
Thermablok Aerogel insulation designed to stop thermal loss through framing timbers
Konara Solar cells built with nanoparticles intended to be integrated into building materials
Solarmer Energy Solar cells built with nanoparticles intended to be integrated into building materials
Nanoprotect Coating using nanoparticles to provide waterproof coating to porous materials such as stone
BASF Floor leveling compound incorporating that combines nanopores with rubber granules to reduce the work required to tile floors
EnSol Solar cells built with nanocrystals intended to be integrated into building materials
Industrial Nanotech Nanocomposite coating with low thermal conductivity
Nano Technology
Carbon nanotubes bridging cracks in a cement composite

I have no idea of the safety measures put in place to protect the workers from these materials. What I do know is that nanotechnology hazards are an unknown to the construction industry. How many of the second-hand users know that they are dealing with materials that contain these nanomaterials? Did you know that there is a nano silica also known as silica fume? The blog “Nanotechnology in the Construction Industry” says “Basic construction materials cement, concrete and steel will also benefit from nanotechnology. Addition of nanoparticles will lead to stronger, more durable, self-healing, air purifying, fire resistant, easy to clean and quick compacting concrete. Some of the nanoparticles that could be used for these features are nano silica (silica fume), nanostructured metals, carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and carbon nanofibers (CNFs). Do you think that OSHA’s new rule accounts for silica fume? Do you think the standard N95 respirator will filter out this silica fume?

One thing is true, history repeats itself. Technological advances happen faster than the bureaucracy that makes our safety laws. What I do know is that it takes the FDA an average of 10 years to approve new drugs. Why then, do we not have an “FDA type” organization to study and approve the other materials being developed that people are exposed too?  I apologize if you are reading this blog hoping that I have some answers, I do not. To say I am a neophyte when it comes to nanotechnology would be an understatement. I do know that we cannot wait till the year 2098, another 79 years, to figure out that we have been killing workers with a building material that they have never heard of.

Author: Bryan McClure

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