Volume 88 Issue 6 | p. 13 | News of The Week
Issue Date: February 8, 2010

Lax About Nanomaterial Handling

Exposure: many protective measures are not being utilized, survey shows
Department: Science & Technology
News Channels: Nano SCENE
Keywords: safey, nanotechnology, nanomaterials
TEM image of a filter shows multiwalled carbon nanotubes that were emitted when the material was weighed in a hood with no ventilation.
Credit: J. Occup. Environ. Hygiene
TEM image of a filter shows multiwalled carbon nanotubes that were emitted when the material was weighed in a hood with no ventilation.
Credit: J. Occup. Environ. Hygiene

As many as one-quarter of researchers handling nanomaterials do not use any lab protection measures, such as fume hoods, and half do not use masks or respirators to prevent inhalation of particles, according to an international survey of research laboratories by a team of Spanish researchers (Nat. Nanotechnol., DOI: 10.1038/nnano.2010.1).

“We don’t know a lot about the consequences of long-term exposure to nanoparticles,” comments Kristen Kulinowski, director of external affairs at Rice University’s Center for Biological & Environmental Nanotechnology and director of the International Council on Nanotechnology. Consequently, much of the available guidance for handling nanomaterials safely focuses on minimizing exposure. “It sounds like that message has not gotten down to the research community,” Kulinowski says.

The survey team, led by Jesus Santamaria of the Nanoscience Institute of Aragon at the University of Zaragoza, used a Web of Science literature search for keywords such as “nanoparticle” and “nanotube” to identify researchers working with nanomaterials. They contacted 2,300 researchers, and 240 completed the survey. Of those, 95% were from universities or other institutional research labs. About 35% of the respondents were laboratory principal investigators. The rest were other researchers in the groups.

The survey found that among researchers who were aware that their materials could become airborne, 21% used “no special protection” in the lab and 30% used no personal protective equipment when handling nanomaterials.

The survey results are not surprising to representatives of the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, who have observed similar results in field studies they conduct to evaluate methods to determine exposure to airborne particles, says Charles L. Geraci Jr., coordinator of NIOSH’s Nanotechnology Research Center.

NIOSH has developed a two-pronged approach for assessing nanoparticle exposure that includes both general particle counters and filter-based sampling coupled with chemical and microscopic analysis to determine the identity of particles (J. Occup. Environ. Hygiene, DOI: 10.1080/15459620903476355).

In field studies, NIOSH researchers found that nanomaterials can become airborne during tasks such as cleaning of reactors, weighing, and sonicating. Nanomaterials are emitted in the form of agglomerates and clusters rather than as individual fibers or spherical particles (J. Occup. Environ. Hygiene, DOI: 10.1080/15459620903508066).

Andrew D. Maynard, chief science adviser at the nonprofit Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, questions the results of the Spanish survey, saying that the questions were poorly worded and contained confusing language: A “mouth mask without filters,” for example, could be taken to be a simple surgical mask or one that is designed to be a particulate filter, such as the N95 mask found by NIOSH to be effective against nanoparticulate aerosols.

But the confusion, Maynard adds, still points to a need for better understanding, awareness, and implementation of safe-handling protocols for nanomaterials.

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