Although companies are rapidly developing products incorporating nanotechnology, we don't fully understand the nature of these products. What may well be the next big thing to affect water departments is very small indeed.

Nanotechnology, defined as technology involving virus-sized particles measured within the range of 1 to 100 nanometers, is being used in a wide range of products including lip balm and vitamin-fortified fruit juices.

As far as we know, there has been no testing of sewage plant effluent for nanoparticles. But because they're being used in a wide range of products, they could become an issue.

One thing we know about nanotechnology is that we don't know much about it.

At such a small scale, substances react differently than they do “in bulk,” partly because the surface area of nanotech products is so much greater than their bulk equivalents.

In laboratory animals, some nanoparticles persist within the lung. The inability to effectively clear nanoparticles from the lungs may represent major occupational health and safety concerns in a manufacturing and public works context. Human respiratory systems designed to filter out normal-sized particles may not be as effective at the nanoscale. This may also hold true for workplace ventilation systems and personal protective equipment. Currently, very little hazard information exists for nanoparticles. Some nanoparticles may be harmful while others are benign.

In addition, there may be growing public concern about the affect nanoparticles have on the environment downstream of treatment plants. Infrastructure managers should stay informed and develop a proactive approach to nanotechnology risk management.

— Sylvia Chan-Remillard, PhD, works for Calgary, Canada-based HydroQual Laboratories Ltd.

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