Self-cleaning windows, very high strength concrete and thin, lightweight, super-efficient insulation – just three examples of new building materials with impressive properties made possible by nanotechnologies that manipulate materials atom by atom.
These unlock new and better features to transform the performance of buildings and infrastructure. But, for all their benefits, the very small-scale particles and fibres could also carry risks.
Some long and very thin strands might act like asbestos if they float freely in the environment and are inhaled, for instance. There is limited information or guidance for manufacturers and people working in construction and demolition about where these nanomaterials are used and their risks.
Now a research team at Loughborough University, sponsored by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), has produced guidance based on their investigations into where these materials are used, how widespread this is, potential risks and how workers in construction and demolition might manage these.
The researchers set out to discover what is known about the prevalence of nanomaterials in construction, to test possible risks in the lab and to give guidance for manufacturers of nanomaterials or products containing them and people working in construction or demolition.
Estimates suggest that by 2025 up to half of new building materials might contain nanomaterials. However, what we know about where and how these ‘ingredients’ are used is incomplete.
Products that contain nanomaterials are rarely precisely labelled and the way health and safety legislation applies in different countries may not require manufacturers or suppliers to provide information to consumers or regulators about the type of nanomaterial or the specific way in which it is used.
The project was led by Professor Alistair Gibb and Dr Wendy Jones, both from Loughborough University. Dr Jones said:
“With this research we aimed to get a clearer picture of the current status of nanomaterials used in the construction industry and to bring this information to relevant audiences in a practical way. We also hoped to debunk some controversy and misunderstanding about nanomaterials and their risks.
“We researched what information is known already and sought to pull together materials that would otherwise be inaccessible. We describe the nanofilms used for some window glass, silica aerogels used in insulation, nanosilicas used in concrete and coatings, which are the most numerous and readily available nanoscale products in construction.
“The team found that nanomaterials are used primarily in surface coatings, concrete, window glass, insulation and steel in different ways and to differing extents. Some nanomaterials, such as certain types of carbon nanotube (CNT), are reported as potentially harmful, but these do not currently seem to be in common usage in the UK.
“In terms of risk, even problematic nanomaterials such as long, straight CNTs will not be hazardous as long as they are embedded in a solid, stable structure. Risk only arises if workers are exposed to certain nanoparticles or nanofibres in the form of dusts or aerosols; this might occur during construction or demolition activities.”
Vanessa Harwood-Whitcher, IOSH’s Director of Professional Services, said:
“Whilst there’s still much more we can learn about nanomaterials, through this research we’re pleased to produce practical guidance to help raise much needed awareness for those working in the construction sector in particular, and support them in managing potential risks.
“It’s vital that industry works together in sharing information about nanomaterials used in products more effectively. Steps such as this will help increase our knowledge and make a real difference in improving occupational safety and health practice.”
For more details about this research, please see our full report and our guidance for practitioners visit www.iosh.co.uk/nanotechnology