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January 10, 2018

IOSH Publishes Research Report and Industry Guidance on Nanotechnology in Construction and Demolition

Lynn L. Bergeson Carla N. Hutton

On January 8, 2018, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) announced the availability of a research report on nanotechnology in construction and demolition, as well as guidance for industry.  The aim of the research was to provide clarity regarding the current use of nanomaterials in the built environment and the potential benefits and risks arising for those working in the construction and demolition sectors.  Research included review of academic and manufacturers’ literature; interviews with individuals working in various parts of the construction, demolition, and materials supply sectors; and laboratory testing of samples of nano-enabled construction products.  The research findings include:

  • Use of nanomaterials in construction: The main nano-enabled products available are surface coatings, concrete, window glass, insulation, and steel.  There is a lack of evidence regarding which products definitely contain nanomaterials, and what these materials might be, however.  Current usage rates for nano-enabled products in construction are difficult to assess but appear to be relatively low;
  • Health risks from nanomaterials: According to the report, the potential health risks from nanomaterials are generally associated with the presence of nanoparticles and other nano-objects — the smaller particle size results in increased surface area and therefore increased reactivity.  The size of objects is not the only factor that influences risk, however, and there are wide variations between different materials in terms of their toxicity.  Information currently available about the health risks from nanomaterials is based on laboratory research rather than on cases of ill-health in workers.  The results of studies are often inconsistent or inconclusive due to variations in the methods and exact materials used;
  • Exposure to nanomaterials: Assessment of nanomaterial risk is difficult due to the uncertainties over the toxicity of particular nanomaterials and the lack of information on which nanomaterials are contained in which products.  There is some evidence that exposure to nanoparticles from engineered nanomaterials is likely to be low during demolition and construction processes as nanoparticles remain attached to fragments of the underlying matrix.  The evidence base is small, however, and material aging might also influence this, particularly in the demolition context.  Nanomaterial risk may not add substantially to existing construction health hazards (for example silica dust), and commonly used protective methods are likely to be appropriate in many cases;
  • Building on the findings of this research: Improved clarity will only occur if manufacturers take action to share information more readily and to follow voluntary guidance to provide greater detail in safety data sheets regarding any nano-objects.  Action by manufacturers to design products and materials that are intrinsically safer is the best route to minimize any risks to workers in the long term.   Further research is needed to assess the potential for worker exposure from nano-objects in construction and demolition and to consider the impact of secondary nanomaterials.