Interestingly, while surveys of nanotechnology safety practices have concentrated on industrial settings, the safety issues of a significant number of people working with nanomaterials have not been addressed in a concerted matter – the researchers at university and private research laboratories who are doing all the early stage R&D.
According to a survey conducted by a Spanish research group, it appears that the nanotechnology research community is not exactly at the forefront when it comes to following, not to mention setting, standards for safe practices for handling nanomaterials.
"The results of our survey indicate that environmental health and safety practice in many research laboratories worldwide is lacking in several important aspects, and several reasons may contribute to this" Santamaria tells Nanowerk. "Toxicity of nanomaterials is a complex subject because it depends on multiple factors including size, surface area, chemical composition, shape, aggregation, surface coating and solubility. Furthermore, most published
research emphasizes acute toxicity and mortality, rather than chronic exposure and morbidity."
He emphasizes that these factors are aggravated by the fact that, although there have been some attempts at creating international standards for managing the risks of nanomaterials, there are no widely accepted exposure limits for nanomaterials.
Consequently, there is no clear benchmark that can be used as a target for implementing suitable laboratory safety measures
for nanomaterials. This, and the fact that there even aren't agreed standards and terminology, makes it difficult for a simple survey to tease out the true state of safety practices in nanotechnology labs.
Nevertheless, the responses of the 240 participants in the survey shed some light on what's going on. The questions covered: details of the materials and processing methods used; safety measures; waste disposal procedures; and knowledge of legislation for handling nanomaterials.
One of the most surprising results is that nearly three quarters of respondents reported not having internal rules to follow regarding the handling of nanomaterials (approximately half did not have rules and over a quarter were not aware of any internal regulations).
Based on the findings of their initial survey, Santamaria and his team conclude that there is the need for further research aimed at studying the possible adverse health effects of nanomaterials, both under conditions representative of the exposure that may be encountered as background conditions in research laboratories, and under short-term exposures as a consequence of certain laboratory operations.
"In the absence of regulations, scientists should self-regulate, because they are the ones who decide in practice how nanomaterials are handled in the laboratory and are ultimately responsible for implementing nanosafety practices," says Santamaria. "One effective way to speed-up the adoption of safety precautions would be for journals to require a specific description of nanosafety measures within the methods or experimental section of all papers dealing with nanomaterials."