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March 22, 2007

NIOSH Reports Progress Made in Protecting Workers from Nanomaterials

Lynn L. Bergeson

In February 2007, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a report entitled Progress Toward Safe Nanotechnology in the Workplace, which summarizes the progress made by the NIOSH Nanotechnology Research Center (NTRC) since its inception in 2004 through 2006.  According to NIOSH, by redirecting existing resources, NTRC developed a research program that has made progress towards hazard identification and characterization, exposure assessment, risk assessment, and risk management.

NTRC’s goals, and progress made toward each, include:

  • Determine if nanoparticles and nanomaterials pose risks for work-related injuries and illnesses.

NTRC has conducted toxicology research on the properties and characteristics of nanoparticles that are relevant for predicting adverse health effects.  To gain further knowledge about exposure and control practices, NTRC established a field team to conduct assessments of workplaces where exposure to engineered nanoparticles may occur.  To date, this team has partnered with various companies that produce or use engineered nanoparticles to obtain information on potential worker exposures, control technologies, and risk management practices.

  • Conduct research on the application of nanotechnology for the prevention of work-related injuries and illnesses.

NTRC has identified various possibilities for applying nanotechnology to occupational safety and health, including its application in fabricating more efficient filters, sensors, and protective clothing.  NTRC has also conducted numerous discussions with academia and the private sector on other potential projects.  Efforts are underway between NTRC, other Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) personnel, and the Georgia Institute of Technology to identify collaborative projects involving nanotechnology applications to occupational and public health problems.

  • Promote healthy workplaces through interventions, recommendations, and capacity building.

NTRC provided guidance for workers and employers in a document entitled Approaches to Safe Nanotechnology:  An Information Exchange with NIOSH.  Other information products on the NIOSH website include the nanotechnology topic page (with an extensive selection of frequently asked questions) and the Nanoparticle Information Library (NIL), which is a resource on particle information including physical and chemical characteristics.  In addition, NTRC convened a cross-federal group to develop a framework document for health surveillance of workers exposed to nanomaterials.  According to NTRC, this document will involve the business community to identify the range of issues involved in occupational health surveillance.

  • Enhance global workplace safety and health through national and international collaborations on nanotechnology research and guidance.

NTRC established several national and international collaborations to advance understanding of occupational safety and health for nanotechnology workers.  NTRC participates in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and has contributed to the nanotechnology strategic plan through the working group on Nanotechnology Environmental and Health Implications (NEHI).  Occupational safety and health has been a major priority of the NEHI effort, and NIOSH’s strategic research plan and activities address most of the major issues in the NEHI plan. NTRC collaborated with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to build cooperation, coordination, and communication between the U.S. and 30 OECD member countries, including the European Union (EU), and with more than 180 nonmember economies, as well.  NTRC is part of the U.S. leadership on the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) TC 229 Nanotechnology Working Group on Health, Safety, and the Environment.  NTRC also works with the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centers on global projects of information dissemination and communication.

The NTRC research program identified ten critical topic areas that it believes are important for understanding the potential health risks of nanoparticles and developing and disseminating recommendations.  The report describes each of these critical topic areas and the research being conducted. These topic areas are the core of the NTRC research program and represent the areas that are most critical to addressing occupational safety and health issues.  They include toxicity and internal dose; risk assessment; epidemiology and surveillance; engineering controls and personal protective equipment; measurement methods; exposure assessment; fire and explosion safety; recommendation and guidance; communication and education; and applications.  By working in these ten critical areas, NIOSH states that it “has comprehensively begun to address the information and knowledge gaps necessary to protect workers and responsibly move nanotechnology forward so that its far reaching benefits may be realized.”