Ultrafine particles (UFPs) are particulate matter of nanoscale size (less than 100 nanometres in diameter). Regulations do not exist for this size class of ambient air pollution particles, which are far smaller than the regulated PM10 and PM2.5 particle classes and are believed to have several more aggressive health implications than those classes of larger particulates. There are two main divisions that categorize types of UFPs. UFPs can either be carbon-based or metallic, and then can be further subdivided by their magnetic properties. Electron microscopy and special physical lab conditions allow scientists to observe UFP morphology. Airborne UFPs can be measured using a condensation particle counter, in which particles are mixed with alcohol vapor and then cooled allowing the vapor to condense around them which are then counted using a light scanner. UFPs are both manufactured and naturally occurring. UFPs are the main constituent of airborne particulate matter. Due to their numerous quantity and ability to penetrate deep within the lung, UFPs are a major concern for respiratory exposure and health.
Sources and applications
UFPs are both manufactured and naturally occurring. Hot volcanic lava, ocean spray, and smoke are common natural UFPs sources. UFPs can be intentionally fabricated as are fine particles to serve a vast range of applications in both medicine and technology. Other UFPs are byproducts, like emissions, from specific processes, combustion reactions, or equipment such as printer toner and automobile exhaust. There are a multitude of indoor sources that include but are not limited to laser printers, fax machines, photocopiers, the peeling of citrus fruits, cooking, tobacco smoke, penetration of contaminated outdoor air, chimney cracks and vacuum cleaners.
UFPs have a variety of applications in the medical and technology fields. They are used in diagnostic imagining, and novel drug delivery systems that include targeting the circulatory system, and or passage of the blood brain barrier to name just a few. Certain UFPs like silver based nanostructures have antimicrobial properties that are exploited in wound healing and internal instrumental coatings among other uses, in order to prevent infections. In the area of technology, carbon based UFPs have a plethora of applications in computers. This includes the use of graphene and carbon nanotubes in electronic as well as other computer and circuitry components. Some UFPs have characteristics similar to gas or liquid and are useful in powders or lubricants.
Exposure, risk, and health effects
The main exposure to UFPs is through inhalation. Due to their size, UFPs are considered to be respirable particles. Contrary to the behaviour of inhaled PM10 and PM2.5, ultrafine particles are deposited in the lungs, where they have the ability to penetrate tissue and undergo interstitialization, or to be absorbed directly into the bloodstream — and therefore are not easily removed from the body and may have immediate effect. Exposure to UFPs, even if components are not very toxic, may cause oxidative stress, inflammatory mediator release, and could induce lung disease and other systemic effects.
There is a range of potential human exposures that include occupational, due to the direct manufacturing process or a byproduct from an industrial or office environment, as well as incidental,from contaminated outdoor air and other byproduct emissions. In order to quantify exposure and risk, both in vivo and in vitro studies of various UFP species are currently being done using a variety of animal models including mouse, rat, and fish. These studies aim to establish toxicological profiles necessary for risk assessment, risk management, and potential regulation and legislation.
Removal and mitigation
UFPs can be considered a persistent air pollutant. Mitigation and removal efforts are difficult due to the particle size. UFPs are captured on filters through a diffusion process. The only true way to mitigate the amount of UFPs in indoor air would be to use source control methods in which potential emission sources are either removed or limited in use.
Regulation and legislation
As the nanotechnology industry has grown, nanoparticles have brought UFPs more public and regulatory attention. UFP risk assessment research is still in the very early stages. There are continuing debates about whether to regulate UFPs and how to research and manage the health risks they may pose. As of March 19, 2008, the EPA does not yet regulate or research ultrafine particles, but has drafted a Nanomaterial Research Strategy, open for independent, external peer review beginning February 7, 2008 (Panel review on April 11, 2008). There is also debate about how the European Union (EU) should regulate UFPs.
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