The United Steelworkers (USW) and a broad coalition of concerned organizations are calling for immediate federal protective action for workers exposed to possible health risks from engineered nanoparticles.

Nanotechnology is the science of engineering on a molecular scale, in which new materials are created on the atomic or molecular level. The technology is currently in use in the manufacture of polymers and the design of computer chip layouts, and more than 500 consumer products, including cosmetics and suntan lotions, contain nanoparticles.

According to the USW, a $1 trillion global market is expected in nanotechnology-related applications involving over two million workers within the next seven years. The chemical, pharmaceutical and electronics industries head the list of affected workplaces.

While there is currently no scientific evidence concerning the human health effects of engineered nanoparticles, animal studies have shown that some nanoparticles can penetrate cells and tissues and create biological damage, according to the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), one of 38 public health groups, public interest groups, labor organizations, environmental organizations, university professors and others who signed on to the USW’s comments.

The USW is urging the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to adopt a broad-based medical screening program as the first step in identifying and preventing illnesses from occupational exposure to nanomaterials.

The USW was responding to a NIOSH Current Intelligence Bulletin, published as a guidance document in December, in which the agency stated that “insufficient medical evidence exists at this time to recommend the specific medical screening of workers potentially exposed to engineered nanoparticles.”

“The guidance document that NIOSH put out was very vague, it called for voluntary actions, and it’s not terribly useful,” said Dr. Steven Markowitz, USW Medical and Consultant.

The USW is also recommending that NIOSH set up a Nanoparticles Toxicity Review Group that would include representatives from labor, industry, NGOs and university researchers. The group would monitor evolving research about the toxicity of nanosized materials and make recommendations needed to promote worker protections.