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Working with nanomaterials

A guest post by Arnab Chakrabarty, a chemical engineer at Baker Engineering & Risk Consultants.

As nanotechnology marches from the boundaries of laboratories to the home of a consumer, safety concerns should not be overshadowed by the success of the technology. A recent review article by Joseph H. Lavoie, a chemical engineer at the U.S. Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center, tackles the safety concerns of nanomaterials in manufacturing and consumer products (Proc. Saf. Prog., DOI: 10.1002/prs.10388).

Lavoie focuses on inhalation, skin exposure, disposal of nanoparticles, and limited detection ability as the main factors of concern when it comes to nanomaterials safety. More research is needed to understand the risks and how to mitigate or guard against them. Some evidence indicates, for example, that the body’s first defense mechanism against particles in the lungs, alveolar macrophages, are inhibited by carbon nanotubes and fullerenes. There are also conflicting claims about skin penetration of titanium dioxide and what the health effects might be. Scientists need to pin down these and other issues before appropriate exposure limits can be set.

Concerns like these should be well understood both by workers and consumers who are likely to be exposed to them. However, according to another review article by a group led by Jorge L. Gardea-Torresdey, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas, El Paso, recent surveys document that the very importance of assessing safety of nanomaterials is underestimated in many firms and laboratories (J. Hazard. Mater., DOI: 10.1016/j.hazmat.2010.11.020).

Gardea-Torresdey and colleagues note that there was nearly a 400% increase in nanotechnology-based products from March 2006 to August 2009. The uncertainty in nanomaterial toxicity reminds us that emerging technology research should not outpace research on the environmental and health effects of nanomaterials. The evolving document “Approaches to Safe Nanotechnology: Managing the Health and Safety Concerns Associated with Engineered Nanomaterials” by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health is a good starting resource for people looking to enhance their programs in this area.

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