Managing the Risks

Nanotechnology – the manipulation of matter on a near-atomic scale to produce new structures, materials and devices – offers the promise of unprecedented scientific advancement for many sectors, such as medicine, consumer products, energy, materials, and manufacturing. Over the course of the next decade, nanotechnology could have a one trillion dollar impact on the global economy and employ two million workers – half of them residing in the United States.

This increasing use of nanomaterials in the global market brings new challenges to understanding, predicting and managing potential safety and health risks. Little is known about what effect these materials may have on human health; so until the results from research studies can fully elucidate the characteristics of nanoparticles that may pose a health risk, precautionary measures are warranted.

Engineered nanoparticles are manufactured materials with at least one dimension between one and 100 nanometers. For comparison, the diameter of a human hair is about five orders of magnitude larger than a nanoscale particle.

Exposure Hazards

Experimental animal studies indicate that potentially adverse health effects may result from exposure to some forms of nanomaterials. The risk varies with the type of structure and the elemental makeup of the nanoparticle. For example, studies in rodents and cell cultures have shown that the toxicity of ultrafine particles or nanoparticles is greater than the toxicity of the same mass of larger particles of similar chemical composition.

Research demonstrates that inhalation is a significant route of nanomaterial exposure. Evidence from animal studies indicates that inhaled nanoparticles may deposit deep in lung tissue, possibly interfering with lung function. It is also theorized that nanoparticles may enter the bloodstream through the lungs and transfer to other organs. Dermal exposure and subsequent penetration of nanomaterials may affect the skin or penetrate the skin and affect other organs of the body.

Risk Management

Risk management is an integral part of occupational health and safety. Potential exposures to nanomaterials can be controlled through a flexible and adaptive risk management program. An effective program provides the framework to anticipate the emergence of this technology into work settings, recognize the potential hazards, evaluate the exposure to nanomaterial, develop controls to prevent or minimize exposure, and confirm the effectiveness of those controls.

Exposure Control

Exposure control uses a set of tools or strategies for decreasing or eliminating worker exposure to a particular agent. Exposure control consists of a standardized hierarchy of actions that include: elimination, substitution, isolation, engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Substitution or elimination is not often feasible for those working with nanomaterials; however, it may be possible to change some aspects of the physical form of the nanomaterial or the process in a way that reduces nanomaterial release. Isolation includes the physical separation and containment of a process or piece of equipment, either by placing it in an area separate from the worker or by putting it within an enclosure that prevents the release of any nanoparticles.

Engineering controls include any physical change to the process that reduces emissions or exposure to the nanomaterial being contained or controlled. Ventilation is a form of engineering control that can be used to reduce occupational exposures to airborne nanoparticles.

Administrative controls can limit worker exposures through techniques such as using job-rotation schedules that reduce the time an individual is exposed to a nanomaterial. Employee training on the appropriate use and handling of nanomaterials is also an important administrative control.

PPE creates a barrier between the worker and nanomaterials in order to reduce exposures. It may include impervious clothing, closed-toe shoes, long pants, safety glasses, face shields, impervious gloves, and respirators.

HETI…Helping Manage the Risk

Hydro-Environmental Technologies, Inc. (HETI) can assist in developing risk management plans, assessing workplace exposures, and determining exposure control methods for nanotechnology applications. We can provide a comprehensive array of nanomaterial support services, including:

  • Exposure Assessment and Characterization
  • Risk Management Program Development
  • Nanomaterial Site-Specific SOP Development
  • Review/Development of Ventilation Controls
  • Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) Review
  • Compliance Audits
  • Emergency Response Plans
  • Hazard Communication Training
  •  Toxicology Support Services