John Howard, M.D. Director, NIOSHJuly eNews 2012
|The National Institute for |
Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Nanotechnology allows for the manipulation of matter on a near-atomic scale to produce new structures, materials and devices. This technology, and the advanced sophisticated materials it creates, promises scientific advancement for many sectors such as medicine, consumer products, energy, materials and manufacturing. As with any new technology, the earliest and most extensive exposure to emerging and uncharacterized hazards is most likely to occur in the workplace, where these new materials and tools are first developed and used.
Stakeholders and policymakers widely agree that a critical question should be addressed to support the safe development of this revolutionary technology.
The question is this:
Do nanomaterials pose health or safety risks to workers employed in their manufacture and industrial use?
In the last decade, the public and private sectors began to identify the strategic research necessary for engaging that question and incorporating prudent risk management and risk assessment into the rapid introduction of these advanced materials into commerce.
In 2004, NIOSH established its virtual Nanotechnology Research Center to focus and coordinate partnerships across NIOSH and with diverse outside partners. Since then many collaborations have formed, papers published, and recommendations made.
I am gratified that NIOSH’s multidisciplinary team of scientists and engineers has taken a national leadership role in pursuing needed research, and in developing evidence-based recommendations for controlling occupational exposures to nanomaterials as we continue to investigate complex scientific questions that are vital for greater specificity.
In June, as our latest product in this regard, NIOSH issued a guidance document that provides recommendations for good practice for researchers using nano materials. The document General Safe Practices for Working with Engineered Nanomaterials in Research Laboratories raises awareness of the occupational safety and health practices necessary during the synthesis, characterization, and experimentation using engineered nanomaterials in a laboratory setting. The guidance document provides the best information currently available on engineering controls and safe work practices to be followed when working with engineered nanomaterials in research laboratories.
NIOSH also continues to actively participate in national and international conferences where they can partner with fellow scientists to learn about and share new findings and to continue to foster cutting-edge research collaborations. A notable opportunity will occur this summer, when NIOSH and the College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering of the University at Albany, Albany, NY, sponsor a conference, Safe Nano Design: Molecule » Manufacturing » Market August 14–16. Participants at this workshop will have the opportunity to provide input into the safe commercialization of nano products resulting in the development of guidelines for the safe synthesis of nanoparticles and associated products, using a prevention-through-design approach.
NIOSH researchers also continue to publish a robust number of publications in peer reviewed journals in this topic area. Some notable recent findings and areas of research are described here.
- Scientists are building on laboratory studies to date to investigate whether carbon nanotubes (CNTs) may pose a work-related cancer risk. In the meantime, as those studies continue, NIOSH is working with public and private sector partners to identify prudent risk management practices that insure responsible use of these materials. A peer-reviewed paper recently published by NIOSH researchers addresses five areas to help focus action to protect workers:
- review of the current evidence on the carcinogenic potential of CNTs, based on laboratory studies
- the role of physical and chemical properties related to cancer development
- CNT doses associated with changes to or damages in genes in laboratory animals and human tissue specimens
- workplace exposures to CNT
- Specific risk management actions needed to protect workers.
- Another new study links nanoparticle exposure to cellular responses associated with autoimmune risks. In laboratory studies, exposures to certain types of nanoparticles produced cellular changes that are associated with risks for disorders of the autoimmune system such as rheumatoid arthritis.
- The accuracy of nanomaterial safety data sheets has also been an issue of concern to NIOSH researchers. A recent paper highlights the findings from an evaluation of the quality and completeness of information of nanomaterial safety data as it pertains to hazard identification, exposure controls, personal protective equipment, and toxicological information being communicated about the engineered nanomaterial. The study determined that the majority of the safety data sheets obtained in 2010–2011 provided insufficient data for communicating the potential hazards of engineered nanomaterials.
- Despite several years of intensive investigations, scientists have not yet established a common model for understanding the way(s) in which nanoparticles may affect or damage cells. Such damages can be precursors of more lasting or more severe effects in the body. In a paper published in June NIOSH researchers scrutinize the "oxidative stress paradigm," a widely accepted scientific model for understanding the processes that in general are associated with cellular damage, to better understand the processes that can occur from reactions to nanoparticles. The answer to this question will have important ramifications for the development of strategies for mitigation of potential adverse effects of nanoparticles.
- Recent findings by NIOSH researchers have also found indications that improperly designed, maintained, or installed engineering controls may not be completely effective in controlling releases of nanomaterials into the workplace. Unprotected skin exposure to carbon nanofibers was noted in two instances and indicated the need for educating workers on the use of personal protective equipment.
- The NIOSH nanotechnology field research team recently published a summary of emission data collected at four facilities, which volunteered to serve as test sites. The measurements indicated that specific tasks can release engineered nanomaterials into the workplace atmosphere and that traditional controls such as ventilation can be used to limit exposure. Much research is still needed to understand the impact of nanotechnology on health, and to determine appropriate exposure monitoring and control strategies.
Incorporating appropriate risk assessment and risk management into the development of nanotechnology is vital to the safe growth of this technology and to supporting U.S. leadership in the competitive global market. As we approach the second decade of NIOSH’s multidisciplinary research program, we already are witnessing advancements in the technology itself that demand new attention. One such area for pioneering health and safety research, the area of advanced nanomaterials, will be the subject of an upcoming NIOSH Science Blog.
More information on nanotechnology research at NIOSH is available at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/nanotech/. Please visit this page, refer to it for ongoing news about NIOSH’s research, and consider ways in which you might collaborate with us.