nanoparticlesDo nanomaterials pose health or safety risks to workers employed in their manufacture and industrial use?

Dr. John Howard, director of the National Institute of Occupational Health Research (NIOSH), recently issued an update on research intended to answer that question.

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,” noted Howard.

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.

Howard said that NIOSH’s multidisciplinary team of scientists and engineers has taken a national leadership role in pursuing occupational-nanotechnology, and in developing evidence-based recommendations for controlling occupational exposures to nanomaterials.

In June 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. It also provides the best information currently available on engineering controls and safe work practices to be followed when working with engineered nanomaterials in research laboratories.

Participating in conferences with fellow scientists will also help foster cutting-edge research collaborations. NIOSH and the College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering of the University at Albany, Albany, NY will 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.

Howard said that scientists are building on laboratory studies to date to investigate whether carbon nanotubes (CNTs) may pose a work-related cancer risk. Additionally, 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. 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 determined that the majority of the safety data sheets obtained in 2010–2011 provided insufficient data for communicating the potential hazards of engineered nanomaterials.

Other gaps remain.

“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,” said Howard. “Such damages can be precursors of more lasting or more severe effects in the body.”

 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.

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.,” said Howard. “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.”  

More information on nanotechnology research at NIOSH is available at