Nanotech workers may be exposed to health risks

Workers in nanotechnology-related industries may be exposed to occupational health risks, says Andrew Maynard, chief scientific advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. In an article published in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene, entitled “Nanotechnology: the next big thing, or much ado about nothing?”, Maynard writes: “The presence of engineered nanomaterials in the workplace today now presents an immediate challenge to how occupational safety and health is managed effectively.”

Asked about what the immediate priorities should be, Maynard replied: “One of the most important aspects at the moment is asking the right questions of engineered nanomaterials – finding out where they might behave differently from conventional materials, assessing how far current working practices go in helping to ensure safety, and devising new solutions where conventional approaches do not seem sufficient for the job.”

Maynard suggests that unless greater resources are made available for research into possible health risks, workplaces using nanotechnologies may not be safe. He also stresses the importance of information flow between health researchers and industry. For example, Maynard sees the DTI-funded SAFEnano initiative of the Institute of Occupational Medicine as an exciting and much-needed development that should provide those working in the industry with the tools and information they need to maintain safe workplaces.

One practical suggestion made by Maynard is for the introduction of a ‘control banding’ system similar to that used in the pharmaceutical industry. This would incorporate risk control procedures based on exposure and impact indices, providing a template to measure risk based on particle size, shape and action, along with the amount of material used and its dustiness.

Maynard concludes: “If safe nano is to become a reality, it must be built on sound science, and this means we must invest in research that is strategic, targeted and relevant.”

Andrew Maynard has also published a more high profile paper in the journal Nature, which is based on the article cited above. I am currently preparing another article on the subject of risk control in nanotechnology for Nanomaterials News. This will be either a feature article or a Q&A with Andrew Maynard. Watch this space.

Article first published in Nanomaterials News. © 2006 Pira International – all rights reserved.