Nanotechnology: Small science can come with big safety risks

Contributed by Dow Lab Safety Academy

Many scientists these days are excited about nanomaterials research, and with good reason. The novel properties of these ultra-small materials can lead to new and exceptional applications in various industries, such as targeted drug delivery in the pharmaceutical industry.

But while there’s an infinite world of “small” discoveries waiting for talented and interested people, there are also health and safety challenges that are unique to working with nanomaterials. The properties that make nanomaterials desirable can also change their potential hazards.

For example, materials at the nanoscale can have altered uptake and distribution within the human body. This means that they could be absorbed by the body faster, resulting in greater exposure, and they may travel to internal organs that were not previously accessible to the larger scale of the same material.

Here are some best practices for working safely with nanomaterials.

  • Be cautious when reviewing hazard information. Question any health hazard information provided for bulk material. Hazards listed on safety data sheets may or may not be the same for small, ultrafine particles.
  • Assess potential exposure when planning your research. Conduct qualitative exposure assessments for various aspects of the project. Define which tasks may potentially expose workers to nanomaterials, the dustiness of the material, how it will be used, how much will be used, and the duration and frequency of the task.
  • Keep materials off your body and out of the air. Ensure that nanomaterials remain off your skin and out of your lungs and eyes. Ventilation systems capture and remove airborne nanomaterials before they are inhaled by workers. A fume hood is an excellent choice. For larger scale operations, use ventilated enclosures, local exhaust ventilation, or other types of ventilation.
  • Know when to opt for added protection. A fume hood, goggles, lab coat, and polymeric gloves are sufficient for most small-scale research. However, for larger scale operations, using respiratory protection with a P-100 filter and disposable suits is recommended.

For more on this topic, watch the Nanoparticle Safety video in the Specialized Topics module at the Dow Lab Safety Academy. The Dow Lab Safety Academy is a free digital learning environment that seeks to enhance awareness of safety practices in research laboratories.

And to learn a bit about nanoparticle characterization, see a recent story by C&EN’s Lauren Wolf, Federal Lab Helps Clients Move Prospective Nanomedicines Into Clinical Trials.

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Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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