Already, dozens of building materials incorporate nanotechnology, from self-cleaning windows to flexible solar panels to wi-fi blocking paint. Many more are in development, including self-healing concrete, materials to block ultraviolet and infrared radiation, smog-eating coatings and light-emitting walls and ceilings. Nanotech is also starting to make the “smart home” a reality. Nanotech-enabled sensors are available today to monitor temperature, humidity, and airborne toxins. The nanosensor market is expected to reach $17.2 billion by 2012. Soon, inexpensive sensors will be available to monitor vibration, decay and other performance concerns in building components from structural members to appliances. Nanotechnology is also rapidly improving the batteries and wireless components used in these sensors. In the not-too-distant future, sensors will be ubiquitous in buildings, gathering data about the environment and building users. Building components will be intelligent and interactive. Nanosensors and nano building materials raise questions for building designers, builders, owners and users. What will the consequences be as buildings become increasingly intelligent and nanomaterials become an everyday part of the buildings that surround us?
Health and environmental risks
Buildings will undoubtedly be one of our prime areas of contact with nanoparticles both inhaled and absorbed through the skin. Already, building air filtration systems using nanoscale metallic catalysts and other nanotechnologies to remove airborne contaminants are available on the market. Nanoparticles from these filters could become airborne within the building. Research on the health effects of inhaled nanoparticles should be watched closely. Nanoparticles may also be released by building cleaning products and coatings.
Manufacturers of nanofilters, cleaning products and coatings suggest that nanotechnology makes these products more environ-mentally benign than other products. Ecology Coatings, for example, makes coatings that release non-volatile compounds like hydrogen as they cure – a clear improvement over coatings that release toxic volatile organic compounds into building air during curing. Other coatings, such as Nanoprotect for wood, metal and glass, and the nano-enhanced Behr paint available at Home Depot, claim to reduce mold and mildew.
Buildings will also be a prime source for absorption of nanoparticles through the skin. We already absorb nanoparticles through a wide range of products from sunscreen to cosmetics without apparent harmful effects. However, Canada’s ETC group and other NGOs have called for the recall of nano-enhanced sunscreens. Should their fears prove justified, and absorption of nanoparticles become a concern, surfaces such as countertops, handrails, door pulls and cabinets could be likely sources of absorption. Nanoparticles may also enter the body if building water supplies are filtered through commercially available nanofilters. The release of nanoparticles into the environment may also be a concern. Airborne and waterborne particles from all of the sources described above may be introduced into the outdoors via building ventilation and wastewater systems. Cleansers may also enter the environment through building wastewater. While nanofilters offer the promise of cleansing the outgoing air and water from buildings, the environmental effects of nanoparticles should be monitored by the architectural community.
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