There are many pollutants that are visible to the naked eye. Bulk materials such as gas coming out of exhaust pipes or contaminants discolouring water supplies clearly alter their environments. With this being said, there are also pollutants untraceable to human senses that also pose a risk to our health.
Nanoparticles fall into that category.
What are nanoparticles?
A particle is an incredibly tiny piece of matter. The prefix “nano” derives from the Latin word nanus, which means “dwarf”. Therefore a nanoparticle refers to a minute version of something that is already minuscule.
To help you put this into perspective, think of nanoplankton in comparison to plankton. Plankton are organisms that are remarkably small, but nanoplankton is so small, they can only be seen by the human eye under a microscope.
Nanoparticles are similar in concept.
Particulate matter exists in all manner of shapes and sizes. While some of it can be seen clearly, others are impossible to view (such as nanoparticles). It is important to classify particles based on their size because often the ones that are hardest to detect are the most dangerous.
But why is this the case?
The dangers of nanoparticles
Nanoparticles are one of the most dangerous types of particulate matter. This is not only due to their chemical composition.
Particles of all sizes have the potential to pose a threat to human health. The thing that makes nanoparticles more dangerous than larger particles is due to how difficult they can be to detect.
Think of nanoparticles in the same vein as carbon monoxide. While many gases are fatal when inhaled, carbon monoxide is particularly problematic because it is colourless and odourless, making it impossible to detect without the proper technology.
Nanoparticles are dangerous for the exact same reason. Humans cannot see, smell or feel them at a surface level. They are silent killers.
What kinds of effects can nanoparticles have on humans?
How nanoparticles harm human health
Nanoparticles can exist almost anywhere. Someone could go for a leisurely walk and not realise they are inhaling soot emissions from diesel engines. Employees in office space may have no idea that they are exposed to toner dust from printers and other electronics.
Industrial workers may face the most significant risk though, as the equipment often used produces metal oxide particles and phenols.
Nanoparticles are so small, they are able to travel deep into a person's respiratory system or bloodstream. This increases that person's risk of heart and lung disease. Here are some of the complications that nanoparticles may cause
Nanoparticles inhaled in concentrated amounts can significantly damage a person’s respiratory system. The damage can result in dead space in the lungs. Dead space, as defined in a study about tidal volume published in StatPearls, refers to the area of the lungs that continue to fill up with air when a person inhales, but do not contribute to the necessary exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Pneumoconiosis is a blanket term used to refer to many different types of lung diseases caused by the inhalation of dust. While dust is often visible, when its composition is made up of nanoparticles it can be impossible to see. Inhaled nanoparticles can lead to interstitial fibrosis, which can then cause several different lung diseases. This includes coal workers pneumoconiosis (CWP) , which is caused by exposure to coal dust
Silicosis is another occupational lung disease. It is caused by exposure to crystalline silica, a substance that is found naturally in the Earth’s crust. When industrial workers perform tasks like drilling, sanding, sawing and many others, they can potentially inhale crystalline silica. This has the potential to cause cancer cells to form in the lungs.
Why nanotechnology is important
Now that we have established how particle size contributes to health, it is time to discuss how nanotechnology can help professionals find and address nanomaterial.
Determining Particle Size
Nanotechnology helps professionals determine where certain particles fall on the nanoscale. This scale can differentiate whether they are small enough to be considered “nano” or are they large enough to be a risk to human health.
All particles are small by nature, so nanotechnology is essential for determining the average diameter of particles. This is then used to calculate the particle mass. While these may seem like minute details, even small differences in particle sizes can determine whether or not the assessed nanomaterial is dangerous or safe.
Testing particle number concentration
Nanotechnology can also determine how high the volume of particles is in a particular space. Chances are there are at least some nanoparticles of unhealthy material in the air almost everywhere we go. Therefore, a key indicator of safety is having the ability to measure how concentrated these potentially harmful particles are.
Particle number concentration is calculated by determining the number of particles existing in a unit volume of air.
Measuring lung deposited surface area
Nanotechnology is not only capable of measuring how many nanoscale materials are in the air and how large they are but is also capable of detecting the ratio of dangerous nano-sized particles to contrast agents.
Lung deposited surface area refers to the number of particles in a measured area that is small enough to be inhaled. The amount of surface area they take up is relevant to how large the threat they pose based on the volume ratio.
Testo's products for detecting nanoscale matter
When it comes to nanotechnology, quality is key. Missing important details about the chemical composition of the air in a tested area could be potentially fatal.
Testo’s nanoparticle meters are the best on the market. Ort DiSCmini and NanoMet3 are butenol free, making them much more accurate indicators of the presence of hazardous fine particles.
Butanol can reduce the amount and size of nanoparticles detected in the air. Therefore, nanoparticle analysers that contain butanol are known to report inaccurate concentrations of particulate matter. If this mistake happens, preventative measures are sometimes skipped and human health suffers.
For more information on nanotechnology and the risk of nanoparticles, get in contact with the team at Testo NZ today!