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Posted: Feb 14, 2011

A practical approach to managing nanomaterial safety in the lab

(Nanowerk Spotlight) In a previous Nanowerk Spotlight from last year ("Questionable safety practices in nanotechnology labs around the world") we showed that the nanotechnology research community does not exactly appear to be at the forefront when it comes to following, not to mention setting, standards for safe practices for handling nanomaterials. One of the most surprising results was that nearly three quarters of respondents reported not having internal rules to follow regarding the handling nanomaterials – approximately half of them didn't have rules and over a quarter were not aware of any internal regulations.
Researchers at EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) in Switzerland have now taken the initiative and presented a practical, user-friendly procedure for a university-wide safety and health management of nanomaterials, developed as a multi-stakeholder effort (government, accident insurance, researchers and experts for occupational safety and health).
"There was a need for the larger nanotechnology community synthesizing, applying or characterizing nanomaterials to have a methodology to evaluate the risk and to apply adequate protection measures to limit human exposure," Arnaud Magrez, who leads the NN Research Group (Laboratoire de Physique de la Matière Complexe) at EPFL, tells Nanowerk. "As one of the largest research institutes and one of the leaders in nanoscale science worldwide, we were committed to establish such a methodology.
Thierry Meyer, head of Occupational Safety and Health Service and his colleague Amela Groso, say that at EPFL, over 30 research groups (in basic sciences, engineering or life sciences) produce, modify or use engineered nanomaterials in approximately 100 laboratories with over 300 different associated production or characterization processes.
They point out that present knowledge on nanomaterial toxicity is insufficient for completing precise risk assessment. "Threshold Limit Values for nanomaterials do not exist nor is there standard equipment for sufficiently detailed routine exposure measurements. However, since preliminary scientific evaluations show that there are reasonable grounds for concern that activity with nanomaterials might have damaging effects on human health; the precautionary principle must be applied." (also read: "Late lessons from early warnings for nanotechnology")
"Classical risk assessment methods – Hazard and Operability Studies (HAZOP) often used to analyze risks in chemical processes, or Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) often used in industry to evaluate the effects of potential failure modes, etc. – would require around 2000 man/day workload; these are huge resources, nearly impossible to obtain" he says. "Some other institutions have already developed best practices guides and safety management procedures for nanomaterials. However, they mainly propose a risk analysis approach for each individual process and particle type, which is not very practical for large research centers with many different, constantly changing forms of nano-related studies and laboratories."
To develop their methodology, EPFL appointed a "Nanosafe team" consisting of three safety and health specialists, one nano-health and occupational hygiene expert, one insurance representative, three EPFL scientists and nanoparticles' users (production and use) and one representative of State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, to develop a procedure for managing the occupational safety and health risks relevant to research laboratories producing and using nanomaterials.
Government, accident insurance, researchers and experts for occupational safety and health were invited to meet with the Nanosafe team. These meetings eventually lead a procedure for managing the occupational safety and health risks.
The results have been published in a recent edition of Particle and Fibre Toxicology ("Management of nanomaterials safety in research environment").
Decision tree used for determination of Nano hazard type
Decision tree used for determination of Nano hazard type (click on image to enlarge). Questions to be answered by nanomaterials users and producers when determining laboratory (Nano hazard) type. NP: nanoparticles, L/d: length - diameter aspect ratio. (Image: EPFL).
"Our procedure consists of two parts" explains Alke Fink, who leads the Advanced Particles group at the University of Fribourg. "Using a decision tree, we sort the 'nano-laboratories' into three hazard classes (Nano 3 = highest hazard to Nano 1 = lowest hazard), which corresponds to analogue approaches applied to other hazard types (biohazard, radioprotection or chemistry). We then provide a list of required prevention/protection measures (safety barriers) for each hazard level."
The authors note that the target users of this safety and health methodology are at first researchers and safety officers. They can rapidly access the hazard class of their activity and the corresponding adequate safety and health measures. More detailed analysis of specific activities can be undertaken by safety and health experts when needed.
"According to our opinion and experience, the proposed management of nanomaterial safety is not stifling or harming innovation, as it is sometimes feared among researchers," says Magrez. "Besides the fact that it is the first user-friendly methodology, the advantage of the procedure is due to the very simple and inexpensive tools can be used to conduct the evaluation of the nano-labs. Therefore, it could be easily applied by other research institutes. It is being used at EPFL but we heard that some laboratories at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) are already working according to these regulations."
The EPFL team says that their paper provides a good starting point for a practical approach to nano-safety and they are convinced that it will generate further discussions.
"We hope to receive some feedback from institutions which are using and/or have modified the methodology," says Meyer. "That would make our evaluation of the methodology's performance more exact and will give us valuable support for improving it."
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