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Nanotechnology—sin or salvation?

In recent years, nanomaterials have made an entry into the cleaning market. While they offer promising potential, we do know that they’re anything but risk free. Ulf Wretskog, President of Coor in Sweden, explains why Sweden’s leading service management providers have decided to defer adoption of this new technology in cleaning.

A word from our specialist

What is nanotechnology and how can it be used?

Nano means a billionth, it means ultrafine particles. Using nanotechnology, tiny particles can be combined into various structures with differing characteristics and functionality. Nanoparticles sized between 1 and 50 billionths of a meter occur naturally, in volcanic ash and carbon black for example, which is used for producing tires. Nanoparticles can also be produced artificially, and this is where industry is seeing big opportunities in different markets: electronics, energy generation, pharmaceuticals, cleaning and consumer products like sun-block being some examples. In cleaning, you can treat certain types of flooring with nano-based chemicals, which make surfaces far more durable and dirt repellent. Testing also demonstrates that bacteria find it more difficult to gain a hold, which could be an advantage in healthcare.

Why are so many people dubious about nanotechnology?

While nanotechnology does offer promising potential, there is a pressing need to clarify the potential risks of the technology. At present, we don’t know the extent to which all nanoparticles are absorbed through the skin or breathing, and the subsequent short and long-term health risks. However, research has demonstrated that carbon nanotubes do have effects resembling asbestosis in research animals. Accordingly, there may be a potential health risk when products are manufactured and used—such as applying a floor cleaning chemical, or as a floor wears through use. Nanoparticles are also generated when studded winter tires wear asphalt, and research conducted at the Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Umeå in 2012 revealed that these particles cause 30 to 40 deaths a year in Stockholm.

At present, we don’t know the extent to which all nanoparticles are absorbed through the skin or breathing, and the subsequent short and long-term health risks.

Ulf Wretskog, President of Coor in Sweden, Coor

What’s the regulators’ view of the usage of nanomaterials?

In 2009, the Swedish Government appointed the Swedish Chemicals Agency to analyze the need for regulation or other measures within the EU and nationally to achieve an accurate evaluation of the environmental and health risks of nanomaterials. One of the conclusions was that current testing methods to determine the impact of nanomaterials on the environment and health were inadequate. It seems it will be some time before recommendations for test methods are produced. Regulators neither can, nor are permitted, to offer guidance on whether companies can use these products safely.

At present, four of the largest service management providers in Sweden have agreed a consensus—Coor Service Management, Sodexo, Compass Group and ISS. They employ a total of over 25,000 people in Sweden.

“We are in a position where we could start using new cleaning chemicals, which although they clearly offer quality and cost benefits, cannot be evaluated from a risk perspective. Accordingly, we have decided not to use chemicals with nanocomponents for the time being. This is for the sake of our health and the health of our customers’ employees. We also encourage other purchasers of cleaning not to contribute to the usage of untried and potentially harmful chemicals until our knowledge of them has improved.”

If you want to know more about the background to Coor’s position, please contact Ulf Wretskog.

wretskog

Ulf Wretskog

President, Sweden

+46 (0)10-559 59 40

ulf.wretskog@coor.com