Skip to content


This page has a list of definitions describing the meaning of various nanotechnology terms.

Precautionary principle

Principle 15 of the United Nations Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states that:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

This principle should also be applied to the occupational health and safety (OHS) aspects of nanotechnology.

Precautionary approach

The toxicology of nanomaterials and engineered nanoparticles is uncertain because it cannot be reliably predicted from the toxicology profile of their bulk form. Where uncertainty exists, a precautionary approach is recommended.

Australian researchers and nanotechnology businesses are encouraged to adopt a precautionary approach for nanoparticle risk when developing, manufacturing and using products containing engineered nanomaterials.


Labelling must be implemented if the nanomaterial is classified as a hazardous chemical under the workplace hazardous chemicals legislation.

Where the precautionary principle is being applied, marking, labelling and signage should be used on all containers, vessels and pipework that contain nanomaterials or engineered nanoparticles to alert people of the need for caution, and the content of the container, vessel, or pipework.

For example:
'Caution - nanoscale zinc oxide particles' (instead of just 'zinc oxide').

Safety data sheets

A safety data sheet will help identify and communicate hazards associated with nanomaterials and engineered nanoparticles.

A safety data sheet is a document that describes the:

  • identity
  • physicochemical properties
  • health and environmental hazard information
  • precautions for use and safe handling procedures, e.g. about control of human exposure, and risk of fire and explosion
  • safe methods of packing, transport, storage and use of nanomaterials or engineered nanoparticles.

A safety data sheet must be developed if the nanomaterial is classified as a hazardous chemical under the workplace hazardous chemicals legislation.

Although there is no legal requirement to provide a safety data sheet for a material that is not classified as a hazardous chemical, it is good practice to do so since a safety data sheet is a well-accepted and effective method for providing workplace health and safety information.

Therefore a safety data sheet should also be prepared if the toxicity of a nanomaterial or engineered nanoparticle is uncertain, as required by the precautionary principle and should reflect the current state of knowledge.

Because the hazard properties of nanomaterials are not fully known, then an acceptable safety data sheet is one that at a minimum:

  • states that full identification and/or hazard information is not available for the chemical, and in the absence of such information a precautionary approach should be taken to handling it
  • specifies the chemical identity and/or structure of the chemical, and/or chemical composition, as far as is reasonably practicable
  • specifies any known or suspected hazards, and
  • specifies any precautions that must be taken in handling the chemical, to the extent to which such measures have been identified.

In addition to mandatory physical and chemical parameters required for all safety data sheets, the following physicochemical properties should be documented where possible for the nanomaterial:

  • particle size (average and range)
  • size distribution
  • shape and aspect ratio
  • crystallinity
  • dustiness
  • surface area
  • degree of aggregation or agglomeration
  • biodurability or biopersistence
  • surface coating or chemistry (if different to rest of particle).

Nanotechnology manufacturing and research organisations are examples of workplaces where the above information should be documented in safety data sheets.


Relating to "atom", the smallest part of an element that has independent existence.


Relating to "molecule", a combination of two or more atoms chemically combined together.


One billionth of a metre.


Nanotechnology can be considered an "enabling technology" in that when applied to current products and materials enhanced performance can be expected. In some cases nanotechnology will generate new products and materials. Examples include: next generation semi-conductors, nano-scale lithography, opto-electronics, photonics and computing technology, information electronics and magnetics, lasers, sensors, photonic devices and optical communication, avionics, communication systems, microprocessors, computer peripherals, chip design, stronger and lighter construction materials, biomaterials, drug delivery, in-vivo monitoring devices and sensors, human and animal health industries, e.g. pharmaceuticals, food production and processing, environmental monitoring, diagnostics and diagnostic equipment, nano-prosthetics, remote sensing, molecular motors, energy storage and saving systems, sensors, water purification, energy and utilities sector, environmental industries, air purification, environmental monitoring and remediation, products that reduce manufacturing waste, capacitors and battery materials, degradable/food packaging systems, nano powders, particles/metals/metal oxides, carbon structures for manufacturing industries, use in materials, alloys, ceramics, polymers, inks, coatings, cosmetics.

Reference: Smaller, Cleaner, Cheaper, Faster, Smarter. Nanotechnology Applications and Opportunities for Australian Industry. June 2002. A Report for the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Tourism, and Resources. Commonwealth of Australia.