Invisible hazard: Cost of nanotechnology to workers' health

When you’re blindly venturing into undiscovered terrain, how do you keep your workers safe?

That’s a question global nanotechnology companies — and the institutes, regulators and government bodies that work alongside them — are currently struggling with.
As far as industries go, nanotechnology is merely a baby. The world is still learning about its potential applications — and hazards. No one knows enough about it to create steadfast laws to govern it. Instead, the global community is still focused on simply laying the foundation — focusing its research efforts on such things as how to properly measure nanomaterials and develop consistent scientific language and terminology that can be used on a global level.

Meanwhile, nanotechnology is growing at a lightning-fast clip. A lot of methodologies that were developed as little as five years ago are considered outdated today. Although there’s very little published data on the Canadian nanotech industry, the Information and Communications Technology Council estimates the number of Canadian nanotech firms jumped from 88 in 2005 to more than 135 in 2010.

The exact volume of products that contain nanomaterials is unknown, but many believe there’s upwards of 250 products on the market that contain nanosilver alone. This nanomaterial is used in gauze bandages for burn victims, for example, as well as anti-bacterial paint.

With this rapid growth, it’s difficult for toxicology research to keep up, which in turn makes it difficult to develop safety standards. The fact nanotechnology isn’t limited to just one sector is also a problem.

“The challenges related to nanotechnology is that it’s such a wide-ranging technology — it encompasses many different areas,” says Brian Haydon, senior project manager, healthcare/nanotechnology, for the CSA Group. “There’s a broad application of potential products, so the challenge related to developing standards applies to a broad range of product sectors.”

Potential hazards
In a nutshell, nanotechnology is the process of dealing with substances at an atomic level and, essentially, changing the way they behave. Nanoparticles are defined as any particle that ranges between one and 100 nanometres (nm) in length. A nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre (the human hair is about 75,000 nm wide).

At that size, these particles can potentially find their way through human skin, mucus membranes, or respiratory passages and, eventually, into the blood stream. Once there, nobody really knows what they can do.

“This technology is allowing society to manipulate matter and maintain it at the nano scale,” says Renzo Dalla Via, senior research specialist at Workplace Safety and Prevention Services (WSPS) and chair of the CSA nanotechology guideline’s technical committee. “The majority of these materials are new, they haven’t been experienced before. The ability to ensure they’re safe and not toxic just isn’t there.”

Because a lot isn’t known, government bodies aren’t yet ready to generate laws around exposure limits and health and safety requirements — although companies working in this field are still required to practice due diligence and protect their workers as best as possible.

“The Occupational Health and Safety Act says you need a health and safety policy and a program to support that policy,” says Dalla Via. “In my view, that says you have to have a program around nanomaterials.”

That means a lot of things are left in the employers’ hands. If a company is opting to work with nanomaterials, they have to know the details surrounding the particles they’re working with. They have to know what precautions to take — for example, what respirators to use — and how to best protect their employees.

“Bulk material exposure is one thing, but the smaller the particles, the easier it is for them to get into the blood stream, the skin, the lungs,” says Don Ewert, vice-president of field services for nanoTox Inc., and past-chair of the American Industrial Hygiene Association Nanotechnology Working Group. “The concern is in the processing of nano materials — the creation and handling before it goes into final product.”

This can include someone in a lab who is breaking down or creating a new material, or a person who is responsible for handling and transporting containers of nanomaterials from one plant to another. An employee who cleans out a drying kiln after making a form of antibacterial paint with nanoparticles, for example, will also be placed in contact with potential hazards.

Moving forward
The good news, at this point, is that most nanotechnology is still occurring in small scales and in laboratory settings.

“The luxury right now is a lot of it can be contained at the institute level. It’s handled in small, relatively safe quantities,” says Dalla Via. “Until companies start producing them in mass volumes, it’s pretty easy to keep people safe.”

Health and safety becomes difficult when nanomaterials are used in large scale manufacturing processes. Right now, there are only a few nanomaterials that are used on this type of commercialized scale — namely, titanium dioxide, calcium carbonate and nanosilver. The U.S.-based National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has already come out with health and safety recommendations for working with titanium dioxide, and guidelines for carbon nanotubes are in draft form.

However, these are just voluntary guidelines, based on the best information currently available. While they offer as much guidance as they can, they essentially take a “precautionary approach” to dealing with these materials — which means minimizing exposure until more information is available. This approach has been adopted by the global nanotechnology community.

“We learned a lot of lessons from not paying attention to the potential hazards of asbestos and nicotine,” says Ewert. “Because of that, occupational health professionals know what to do and how to handle unknown substances. Hence the precautionary approach.”

A precautionary approach is the best means of handling unknown scientific terrain, because it places workers in the least amount of danger.

“What we do is we look at a lot of the products coming out and evaluate possible exposure. We ask ourselves, what do we know? If we don’t have definitive answers we build our answers on a precautionary principle,” says Dalla Via. “What we’re saying is you take all precautions reasonable. Reduce the exposure to the minimum.”

Right now, standards associations are essentially leading the charge. The International Standards Organization (ISO) spent more than three years developing a technical report that eventually led to the current global safety standard for nanotechnology. It collected information from all the industrial countries, submitted it to a review committee and was eventually given the green light as the best state of nanotechnology understanding available to date. The CSA then took that report, updated it and developed the first Canadian standard — the most recently released Z12885 standard.

“We’re not going to rubberstamp and tell people what they specifically have to wear to work,” says Dalla Via. “The document says you have to review the materials you’re working on, have some understanding of their dimensions and use the preferred required protection based on the individual assessment. The report is designed to guide someone in choosing what type of ventilation to use. This is the state of nano. You have all your information out there and make the decisions as best you can. Given the complex nature, you always err on the side of caution.”

While exercising caution is obviously a good strategy when dealing with brand new materials, there is such a thing as being too cautious, says Ewert. The challenge is finding the right balance that will allow the industry to grow and keep workers safe at the same time

“We have to balance occupational health and safety, but we want to make sure the laws aren’t so restrictive that they prevent the production of product,” he says. “What we’ve found is some of the regulatory bodies get so restrictive that they make it impossible to produce the product. They want all the studies being done, but sometimes they cost millions of dollars. It’s tough on manufacturers to get products made. It’s moving a lot slower than we thought a few years ago because of all these restrictions.”