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  • Nanotech Workplace Safety Information Found Lacking
Nov 2006
SANTA BARBARA, Calif., Nov. 20, 2006 -- The first comprehensive, international survey of workplace safety practices in the burgeoning nanotechnology industry finds that many nanotech companies and laboratories believe nanoparticles –– specks of matter that are smaller than living cells –– may pose specific environmental and health risks for workers. The study was carried out by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"This is an important study, because it reinforces the perspective that there needs to be more information regarding the toxicology of new nanomaterials and how they should be handled in the contexts of industry, consumers and the environment," said Patricia Holden, principal investigator for this project and associate professor at UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. Holden co-advised four master's students in this research as part of their group thesis.

"Particles at the nanoscale take on entirely new physical properties, making their potential dangers to humans and the environment mostly unknown," Holden said.

The survey and report were produced by a research team from UCSB that includes environmental scientists, sociologists, a corporate environmental management expert and an anthropologist. The work was commissioned by the International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON), a coalition of academic, industrial, governmental and civil society organizations based at Rice University, following a competitive bidding process in which UCSB's proposal was chosen. ICON is administered by Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN). (See also, "It's the Little Things That Matter")

"The value of this study is that we brought together knowledge of academic and industry laboratory practices, toxicologic risk assessment, and social science approaches," said study co-principal investigator Barbara Herr Harthorn, who is co-director of the National Science Foundation's Center for Nanotechnology in Society at UCSB. "This allowed us to gather and analyze a unique set of detailed data from around the globe, establishing baseline data for future studies and a first step toward developing safe handling guidelines for nanomaterials."

The study found that companies are reporting that they are developing special programs and procedures for mitigating risks to workers and consumers. Yet, due in part to a lack of general information regarding nanomaterials risks, companies and labs have workers using conventional environmental, health and safety practices (EHS) when handling nanomaterials, even though the practices were developed to deal with bulk materials that can have markedly different chemical properties than their nanosized counterparts.

"The use of conventional practices for handling nanomaterials appears to stem from a lack of information on the toxicological properties of nanomaterials, as well as nascent regulatory guidance regarding the proper environmental, health and safety practices that should be used with them," said Kristen M. Kulinowski, director of ICON.

Survey data were collected this summer from 64 organizations in North America, the European Union, Asia and Australia. North American and Japanese respondents each represented 39 percent of those surveyed, with 17 percent from the European Union and 5 percent from Australia. About 80 percent of responses were from private-sector companies, including for-profit entities that are developing or have developed at least one product containing nanomaterials.

"The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is pleased to see the ICON report, which we will review with great interest in our ongoing efforts to further scientific research and provide interim recommendations on safe approaches to nanotechnology," said NIOSH Director John Howard. "We appreciate UCSB's partnership, early in their process, in inviting us to participate in the planning and design of the survey. This work will give researchers a better understanding of current work practices in the nanotechnology industry, and valuable insight into current information gaps that might exist in understanding and managing the occupational health implications of this revolutionary technology."

Workers occupy the frontiers of nanotechnology development. Engineered nanomaterials are intentionally designed to take advantage of properties that emerge at the nanoscale, and nanotech workers typically face the greatest exposure risks from engineered nanomaterials. For example, in products containing nanomaterials that are incorporated in a plastic composite or other solid matrix, risks to consumers are believed to be minimal because the materials are locked up tight. But workers who make the products, and who handle the nanomaterials in raw form, face more risk of exposure.

There exists little specific information about the potential harm workers face from most engineered nanomaterials. By attempting to understand how employers and workers are currently approaching the development and implementation of workplace safety practices, ICON and UCSB are taking an important step toward the development and global adoption of best practices to minimize exposure and hazard from engineered nanomaterials.

The survey and report were part of a two-phase project aimed at determining how industry is managing the occupational safety risks that may be posed by certain nanomaterials.

"When ICON began discussing the need for best-practices guidelines for handling nanomaterials, we quickly realized there was little documentation of existing workplace policies and practices," Kulinowski said. "It's hard to know where you need to go if you don't know where you are. With only limited anecdotal evidence of EHS practices available, we decided that a more comprehensive evaluation was needed."

The first-phase report, "Current Knowledge and Practices regarding Environmental Health and Safety in the Nanotechnology Workplace," was issued last month. It offered a review and analysis of existing efforts to develop "best practices" for workplace safety in the nascent nanotech industry. The new takes a "snapshot" of industry practices currently in use. Together, the reports provide the first-ever overview of environmental health and safety in the nanotechnology workplace.

The report, "A Survey of Current Practices in the Nanotechnology Workplace," is available at:

The use of atoms, molecules and molecular-scale structures to enhance existing technology and develop new materials and devices. The goal of this technology is to manipulate atomic and molecular particles to create devices that are thousands of times smaller and faster than those of the current microtechnologies.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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