Questionable safety practices in nanotechnology labs around the world

(Nanowerk Spotlight) The discussion about nanotechnology related safety issues so far has focused mainly on three areas – consumers getting exposed to products containing nanomaterials; nanomaterials getting released into the environment and potentially entering the food chain (read "Nanotechnology's impact on major food crops" and "Investigating potential nanotechnology risks at the bottom of the food chain"); and industrial workers being exposed to nanomaterials during the production process (see "Protecting nanotechnology workers"). There is an increasing number of reports and research papers dealing with these issues. For a good overview see here "Approaches to safe nanotechnology ", here ("Governing the risk of nanotechnology in food and cosmetics ") and here ("European nanotechnology research addressing health and environmental impact of nanoparticles").
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.
Published in the February issue of Nature Nanotechnology ("Reported nanosafety practices in research laboratories worldwide"), Jesus Santamaria, who heads the Nanostructured Films and Particles (NFP) Group at the University of Zaragoza, and his team have conducted an online survey to identify what safety practices researchers are following in their own labs.
"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."
Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
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