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  • 31 Jan 2014
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Project studies nanoparticle risk in site materials

A Loughborough University research team has won funding to examine the health and safety considerations linked to the release of “nanoparticles” in today’s construction materials once the buildings are demolished.

There is some medical research to suggest that nanoparticles, when released from their host materials and either breathed in or touched, might have harmful effects, said Professor Alistair Gibb MCIOB, director of the European Construction Institute at Loughborough University.

Nanoparticles can be found in a range of construction products and systems, including raw steel, high-strength welds and fire-resistant materials. Other nano-applications in the built environment include self-cleaning glass, super-strength bolts and flexible solar panels.

Nanoparticles – used to add strength or thickness but a thousand times thinner than a human hair – are also used in food products, touch screens for mobile phones, sunscreen, medicines and cosmetics.

Although used extensively throughout the world for at least a decade, there is little research on what happens to nanoparticles once the host product is destroyed or altered.

"Our research has three stages. The first is to identify what products have been made with nanotechnology, then to identify what particles are embedded in the product and then to see how and when they are released when the host product is demolished."

Professor Alistair Gibb MCIOB, Loughborough University.

Loughborough’s study, with results to be released in phases as it progresses, is looking only at the “bio-availability” of nanoparticles, that is, how they come to be released from their host material.

But Gibb stressed that the three-year project isn’t a medical investigation into the effects on human health of coming into contact with nanoparticles, but rather a look at what happens to the particles during demolition. “It’s an important issue because very little of construction material is not now recycled,” he said.

“Our research has three stages. The first is to identify what products have been made with nanotechnology, then to identify what particles are embedded in the product and then to see how and when they are released when the host product is demolished.”

Gibb said that the research, funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), could find, for example, that glass containing nanoparticles releases its nanoparticles only when it is melted for recycling and not when crushed.

“There is some evidence that nanoparticles act in ways similar to asbestos... but there should not knee-jerk reaction to them,” he said.

Jane White, IOSH research and information services manager, said nanomaterials are used widely but there is little knowledge about the potential impact that nanoparticles have on worker health. “This study should help us to lay the foundations for a clearer picture,” she said.

Gibb’s team will work with demolition experts from the Institute of Demolition Engineers and the National Federation of Demolition Contractors to determine recommended methods for demolition and recycling of products containing nanoparticles.

A 35-minute IOSH webinar on the subject can be found at: https://iosh.adobeconnect.com/p1edue7tiy9/

Companies that can identify and supply product samples are invited to contact the Loughborough research team at: a.g.gibb@lboro.ac.uk.

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