Nanotechnology in the workplace

(Nanowerk Spotlight) New technology, whether it is a novel cancer treatment or an innovative approach to farming, almost always comes with risk. Those risks are often first - and most severely - felt by industry workers, and nanotechnology is no different. Today, workers around the world are exposed to nanoparticles on a daily basis. There is much speculation, yet so far, little definitive information about how exposure affects workers. A report released by the International Council on Nanotechnology in November 2006 ("A Survey of Current Practices in the Nanotechnology Workplace"), offers a clear picture of the situation. "The properties for which novel nanoscale materials are designed may generate new risks to workers, consumers, the public, and the environment. While some of these risks can be anticipated from experiences with other synthetic chemicals and with existing knowledge of ambient and manufactured fine particles, novel risks associated with new properties cannot easily be anticipated based on existing data." Questions, such as how to measure toxicity and how to monitor and control exposure, remain unanswered.
Despite global acknowledgment of the potential risks, research efforts and funding are focused on application rather than safety. In fact, nanotechnology is one of the most active areas of research today with a worldwide investment of almost $10 billion.
A great deal of research is being conducted, but not enough of it looks specifically at the health risks, says Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. There is certainly safety research being done, but the extent, pertinence and financial commitment of this research varies, depending on whom you ask.
Most of the U.S. federal government’s investment in nanotechnology research is channeled through the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a federal research and development program (with an annual budget of more than $1.5 billion) established to coordinate multi-agency efforts in nanoscale science, engineering and technology. According to Maynard, NNI agencies claim to have dedicated $40-50 million annually to assess safety issues related to nanotechnology.
But, Maynard says, there is no data or detailed information to support this claim. In fact, he says, a study done by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies in 2005 found evidence that only about $11 million of the NNI’s research budget was actually funding projects focused on health-risk and safety issues. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies established a database to track these projects and monitor new efforts. "One of the biggest barriers to successfully commercializing responsible nanotechnology is the lack of understanding about risks," says Maynard. "Most people agree that more research is needed, but so far this observation hasn’t resulted in significantly increased safety research," he says, "especially in the U.S."
While America, with its substantial government funding, leads the world in nanotechnology research and development, most of the money dedicated to safety research comes from other countries, says Maynard. "The European Union is taking a fairly holistic approach to developing a safety research structure," he says, adding that EU nations lead the way in safety and risk research. Other countries, including China, also have a pragmatic approach to risk research. "These countries recognize that understanding the risk is important," says Maynard.
In January, the EU launched its largest-ever funding program for research and technological development, the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The program earmarks about $4.5 billion for nanotechnology research and includes calls for targeted research in areas as specific as exposure monitoring and hazard evaluation, says Maynard. "This program, while not as comprehensive as is perhaps ideal, is a significant step towards developing integrated research strategies for generating information necessary to develop responsible and sustainable nanotechnologies."
Other countries, including China, also take a pragmatic approach to risk research. "These countries recognize that understanding the risk is important," says Maynard, who believes that one of the reasons the U.S. government is reluctant to focus more on safety issues is the view that too much emphasis on risk may damage the success of nanotechnology and may also drive development to less regulated nations. "The government wants to look to the future, but ignore warning signs,” he says, adding that there are plenty of historical examples of a government and industry “do it now, mop it up later" approach.
What it comes down to, says Maynard, is a lack of strategic direction. "There is no overarching strategy," he says. Funding for risk research is spread among several government agencies including the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Defense (DOD), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), but efforts to coordinate activities are not that successful.
Maynard also believes that the distribution of funds makes little sense. "The NSF claims to have more than $20 million (of its nearly $400 million NNI funds) dedicated to safety research. Yet, they have no mandate to conduct this research." On the other hand, says Maynard, the agencies that should be driving this effort – including NIOSH – have received little or no additional funding for this purpose.
Two years ago, NIOSH which is mandated by law to conduct research and develop guidance on worker safety and health, established the Nanotechnology Research Center (NTRC) by redirecting existing funds from other programs. For fiscal year 2007, NIOSH redirected $4.6 million to this effort. John Howard, M.D., NIOSH director, acknowledged the limitations of this amount in a report ("Progress Toward Safe Nanotechnology in the Workplace" - pdf download, 3.2 MB) released by NIOSH in February. "This budgetary constraint has made a more comprehensive research program specific to nanomaterials difficult to implement."
One of the people charged with this difficult implementation is Paul A. Schulte, director of NIOSH’s Education and Information Division and coordinator of the Nanotechnology Research Program. According to Schulte, based on the current state of nanotechnology, the greatest concern from an occupational safety and health perspective is unbound nanoparticles, less than 100 nanometers in size.
Schulte says that exposure to nanoparticles is occurring across a broad spectrum of business, industry and research facilities, including university and corporate research labs, pilot and startup companies, manufacturing and production facilities, and organizations that deal with nanomaterials end-of-life issues. "We need to think about the kinds of concerns that may occur in this broad range of facilities," says Schulte.
"Typically, we use a four-step approach to worker safety assessment: Hazard identification, exposure assessment, risk characterization and risk management," says Schulte. But, because NIOSH is already being approached by employers and workers asking for guidance on safe procedures, Schulte and his colleagues are working on all four steps simultaneously.
NIOSH scientists are studying the health effects of single-walled carbon nanotubes on the lungs and skin and the effects of titanium dioxide on the skin. Research into other potential health effects is taking place at other facilities as well, says Schulte, but there is much more that needs to be done.
"We have enough initial information that we believe caution is warranted," says Schulte. "However, it is important that this statement not be under- or over-interpreted." The only way to avoid this misinterpretation is to establish concrete information.
Schulte says one of the best ways to learn about the human health effects of exposure is to study actual workplaces currently handling nanomaterials. NIOSH’s NTRC has established a field team to assess workplaces where exposure to engineered nanoparticles may occur. To date, the team (which comes only at the invitation of a business) has only visited between six and 10 companies, but hopes to increase this effort. NIOSH has also published "Approaches to Safe Nanotechnology: An Information Exchange with NIOSH" (pdf) to help industry, employers and workers address risk concerns.
Although he recognizes the potential risks associated with nanomaterials, Schulte has an optimistic view. "Society is trying to take steps to ensure openness and transparency on this issue," he says, adding that he doesn’t see nanotechnology as the next asbestos crisis. "People have learned from past mistakes and don’t want to repeat them.
By Cathy Garber, Copyright Nanowerk LLC

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