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Posted: Mar 20, 2013
New safeguards foster innovation in nanomaterials
(Nanowerk News) Engineered nanomaterials are already widely used in technologies and consumer products ranging from toothpaste to paints.
According to the EU’s Joint Research Centre, these miniscule materials have significant potential in areas such as medicine, environmental protection and energy efficiency. But with any new scientific or technological development comes an element of caution.
European researchers in the Nanodevice project are investigating the safety aspects of nanomaterial production. Their plan laid down in 2009 was to develop new concepts, reliable methods and portable devices for detecting, analysing and monitoring airborne ENMs in the workplace. The latest feedback from the team suggests the project has delivered on its promise.
The project has concluded work on seven new ‘nanodevices’, which have been calibrated and tested for use in work environments exposed to nanoparticles. This work, alongside findings from materials studies and research into the association between ENM properties and their biological impacts, will appear in a new nanosafety handbook, called "Safe handling of manufactured nanomaterials: particle measurement exposure assessment and risk management".
“Complex research like this calls for an integrated, multidisciplinary approach,” confirms Nanodevice’s project leader, Dr Kai Savolainen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. “This is why we brought together academics and industry experts from metrology, materials characterisation, toxicology and device development, including smaller firms which stand to benefit most from the easy-to-use affordable devices we have developed.”
Guiding a growing infant ...
Nanosciences are still in their relative infancy, says Dr Savolainen, which means there are many unknowns and a lack of reliable information on ENM exposure limits in the workplace. “Our project provides innovative solutions which reduce uncertainty and thus boost progress in this field.”
With affordable, portable equipment, even small companies can regularly measure their workers’ exposure to potentially harmful particles. When compared with a growing body of data from other workplaces, a more accurate assessment of risk and occupational health and safety emerges.
Prior to Nanodevice’s portable solutions, regular nanosafety checks could cost up to €200 000. The instrumentation hauled in from outside weighed hundreds of kilos and needed several experts to gather and analyse data from multiple sites. Big companies could afford this, but Europe’s important SME sector struggled with the cost.
“We’ve developed devices like a personal nanoparticle monitor for less than €200 that almost any company can afford and quickly learn to use,” says Dr Savolainen. Worn by a worker, the system collects exposure information, but needs to be plugged into a computer to download the data. This is not ideal, so Nanodevice is keen to develop this into a real-time sensing and monitoring device linked to the internet and databases.
“Today, lack of ‘big’ accurate data makes it hard to know if exposure values are too low,” explains Dr Savolainen, “so our work helps the scientific community build a large database on exposure levels in the working environment.” This means companies, regulators and stakeholders will have access to reliable information from which to base risk-assessment decisions and develop standards for occupational exposure levels for different types of ENMs.
“Thanks to our work, the ‘big picture’ is that people won’t have to be concerned about lack of information on exposure levels. This reduces uncertainty about ENM safety and fosters more innovation in nanosciences in general,” he concludes.