Reviewing approaches to safe nanotechnology

(Nanowerk Spotlight) NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the United States, has published the final version of its report "Approaches to Safe Nanotechnology" (pdf download, 1.5 MB).
This document reviews what is currently known about nanoparticle toxicity, process emissions and exposure assessment, engineering controls, and personal protective equipment. This updated version of the document incorporates some of the latest results of NIOSH research, but it is only a starting point. The document serves a dual purpose: it is a summary of NIOSH's current thinking and interim recommendations; and it is a request from NIOSH to occupational safety and health practitioners, researchers, product innovators and manufacturers, employers, workers, interest group members, and the general public to exchange information that will ensure that no worker suffers material impairment of safety or health as nanotechnology develops.
NIOSH intends this document to serve as a vital resource for stakeholders (including occupational safety and health professionals, researchers, policy makers, risk assessors, and workers in the industry) who wish to understand more about the safety and health implications of nanotechnology in the workplace.
Following is a summary of the report's findings and key recommendations:
Potential Health Concerns
  • The potential for nanomaterials to enter the body is among several factors that scientists examine in determining whether such materials may pose an occupational health hazard. Nanomaterials have the greatest potential to enter the body through the respiratory system if they are airborne and in the form of respirable-sized particles (nanoparticles). They may also come into contact with the skin or be ingested.
  • Based on results from human and animal studies, airborne nanoparticles can be inhaled and deposit in the respiratory tract; and based on animal studies, nanoparticles can enter the blood stream, and translocate to other organs.
  • Experimental studies in rats have shown that equivalent mass doses of insoluble incidental nanoparticles are more potent than large particles of similar composition in causing pulmonary inflammation and lung tumors. Results from in vitro cell culture studies with similar materials are generally supportive of the biological responses observed in animals.
  • Experimental studies in animals, cell cultures, and cell-free systems have shown that changes in the chemical composition, crystal structure, and size of particles can influence their oxidant generation properties and cytotoxicity.
  • Studies in workers exposed to aerosols of some manufactured or incidental microscopic (fine) and nanoscale (ultrafine) particles have reported adverse lung effects including lung function decrements and obstructive and fibrotic lung diseases. The implications of these studies to engineered nanoparticles, which may have different particle properties, are uncertain.
  • Research is needed to determine the key physical and chemical characteristics of nanoparticles that determine their hazard potential.
    Potential Safety Concerns
  • Although insufficient information exists to predict the fire and explosion risk associated with powders of nanomaterials, nanoscale combustible material could present a higher risk than coarser material with a similar mass concentration given its increased particle surface area and potentially unique properties due to the nanoscale.
  • Some nanomaterials may initiate catalytic reactions depending on their composition and structure that would not otherwise be anticipated based on their chemical composition.
  • Working with Engineered Nanomaterials
  • Nanomaterial-enabled products such as nanocomposites, surface-coated materials, and materials comprised of nanostructures, such as integrated circuits, are unlikely to pose a risk of exposure during their handling and use as materials of non-inhalable size. However, some of the processes used in their production (e.g., formulating and applying nanoscale coatings) may lead to exposure to nanomaterials, and the cutting or grinding of such products could release respirable-sized nanoparticles.
  • Maintenance on production systems (including cleaning and disposal of materials from dust collection systems) is likely to result in exposure to nanoparticles if deposited nanomaterials are disturbed.
  • The following workplace tasks can increase the risk of exposure to nanoparticles: Working with nanomaterials in liquid media without adequate protection (e.g., gloves); Working with nanomaterials in liquid during pouring or mixing operations, or where a high degree of agitation is involved; Generating nanoparticles in non-enclosed systems; Handling (e.g., weighing, blending, spraying) powders of nanomaterials; Maintenance on equipment and processes used to produce or fabricate nanomaterials and the cleaning-up of spills and waste material containing nanomaterials; Cleaning of dust collection systems used to capture nanoparticles; Machining, sanding, drilling, or other mechanical disruptions of materials containing nanoparticles.
  • Exposure Assessment and Characterization
    Until more information becomes available on the mechanisms underlying nanomaterial toxicity, it is uncertain what measurement technique should be used to monitor exposures in the workplace. Current research indicates that mass and bulk chemistry may be less important than particle size and shape, surface area, and surface chemistry (or activity) for some nanostructured materials.
    Many of the sampling techniques that are available for measuring airborne nanoaerosols vary in complexity but can provide useful information for evaluating occupational exposures with respect to particle size, mass, surface area, number concentration, and composition. Unfortunately, relatively few of these techniques are readily applicable to routine exposure monitoring. NIOSH has initiated exposure assessment studies in workplaces that manufacture or use engineered nanoparticles.
    Regardless of the metric or measurement method used for evaluating nanoaerosol exposures, it is critical that background nanoscale particle measurements be conducted before the production, processing, or handling of nanomaterials.
    When feasible, personal sampling is preferred to ensure an accurate representation of the worker?s exposure, whereas area sampling (e.g., size-fractionated aerosol samples) and real-time (direct reading) exposure measurements may be more useful for evaluating the need for improvement of engineering controls and work practices.
    Precautionary Measures
  • Given the limited amount of information about health risks that may be associated with nanomaterials, taking measures to minimize worker exposures is prudent.
  • For most processes and job tasks, the control of airborne exposure to nanoaerosols can be accomplished using a variety of engineering control techniques similar to those used in reducing exposure to general aerosols.
  • The implementation of a risk management program in workplaces where exposure to nanomaterials exists can help to minimize the potential for exposure to nanoparticles. Elements of such a program should include the following: Evaluating the hazard posed by the nanomaterial based on available physical and chemical property data, toxicology, or health-effects data; Assessing the worker?s job task to determine the potential for exposure; Educating and training workers in ??the proper handling of nanomaterials (e.g., good work practices); Establishing criteria and procedures for installing and evaluating engineering controls (e.g., exhaust ventilation) at locations where exposure to nanomaterials might occur; Developing procedures for determining the need for and selecting proper personal protective equipment (e.g., clothing, gloves, respirators); Systematically evaluating exposures to ensure that control measures are working properly and that workers are being provided the appropriate personal protective equipment.
  • Engineering control techniques such as source enclosure (i.e., isolating the generation source from the worker) and local exhaust ventilation systems should be effective for capturing airborne nanoparticles. Current knowledge indicates that a well-designed exhaust ventilation system with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter should effectively remove nanomaterials.
  • The use of good work practices can help to minimize worker exposures to nanomaterials. Examples of good practices include cleaning of work areas using HEPA vacuum pickup and wet wiping methods, preventing the consumption of food or beverages in workplaces where nanomaterials are handled, providing hand-washing facilities, and providing facilities for showering and changing clothes.
  • No guidelines are currently available on the selection of clothing or other apparel (e.g., gloves) for the prevention of dermal exposure to nanoaerosols. However, some clothing standards incorporate testing with nanometer-sized particles and therefore provide some indication of the effectiveness of protective clothing.
  • Respirators may be necessary when engineering and administrative controls do not adequately prevent exposures. Currently, there are no specific limits for airborne exposures to engineered nanoparticles although occupational exposure limits exist for some larger particles of similar chemical composition. It should be recognized that exposure limits recommended for non-nanoscale particles may not be health protective for nanoparticle exposures (e.g., the OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit [PEL] for graphite may not be a safe exposure limit for carbon nanotubes). The decision to use respiratory protection should be based on professional judgment that takes into account toxicity information, exposure measurement data, and the frequency and likelihood of the worker?s exposure. While research is continuing, preliminary evidence indicates that NIOSH-certified respirators will be useful for protecting workers from nanoparticle inhalation when properly selected and fit tested as part of a complete respiratory protection program.
  • Occupational Health Surveillance
    Occupational health surveillance is an essential component of an effective occupational safety and health program. The unique physical and chemical properties of nanomaterials, the increasing growth of nanotechnology in the workplace, and information suggesting that exposure to some engineered nanomaterials can cause adverse health effects in laboratory animals all support consideration of an occupational health surveillance program for workers potentially exposed to engineered nanomaterials. Continued evaluation of toxicologic research and workers potentially exposed to engineered nanomaterials is needed to inform NIOSH and other groups regarding the appropriate components of occupational health surveillance for nanotechnology workers.
    NIOSH has formulated interim guidance relevant to medical screening (one component of an occupational health surveillance program) for nanotechnology workers (see NIOSH Current Intelligence Bulletin Interim Guidance for Medical Screening and Hazard Surveillance for Workers Potentially Exposed to Engineered Nanoparticles). In this document NIOSH concluded that insufficient scientific and medical evidence now exist to recommend the specific medical screening of workers potentially exposed to engineered nanoparticles. However, NIOSH did recommend that hazard surveillance be conducted as the basis for implementing control measures.
    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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