Nanotechnology is a collection of sciences that encompasses, chemistry, biology, physics, engineering, and advanced computing technology to create or manipulate materials or processes the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. For reference, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. Nanoscale matter can behave differently than the same material in a larger, bulk form. For example, a material’s melting point, color, strength, chemical reactivity, and more may change at the nanoscale.1 Nanotechnology underpins many emerging industries and technological innovations such as artificial intelligence, quantum information science, and advanced manufacturing.
Small size and corresponding large surface area lead to a predicted greater biological activity per given mass for nanomaterials relative to their bulk counterparts.2 Thus the properties and behavior of nanoscale forms of a compound cannot simply be extrapolated from their bulk larger forms3 and their effects depend as well on other physicochemical characteristics and environmental conditions.
How Exposures to ENMs May Occur and Potential Effects
As the production and use of engineered nanomaterials has grown, so has the workforce handling them.3 Primary routes of exposure for workers and laboratory personnel involved in handling nanomaterials include inhalation, dermal contact, and ingestion.4,5 An historical awareness of the respiratory and cardiovascular effects of ultrafine particles has contributed to a heightened and enlightened awareness of inhalation as a primary focus for exposure assessment and control of engineered nanomaterials in occupational and laboratory settings.6 The potential for adverse health outcomes from inhalation of nanoscale materials depends on many factors and no single descriptor exists for all nanomaterials.7 Extensive research and field and laboratory evaluations have generated a significant body of knowledge on the safe handling of nanomaterials.
Twelve (12) Lab Safety Guidelines for Handling Nanomaterials
The foundation of safe handling of nanomaterials rests on the practice of good general industrial hygiene for working with chemicals.8 The following key considerations are adapted from guidelines provided by Dr. Peter Lichty (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory):
- Administrative controls, such as appropriate signs and labels, access control, and a chemical hygiene plan, are important aspects of good laboratory hygiene and are a part of a hierarchy of controls supporting the implementation of feasible and effective control solutions (see the National Institute of Safety and Health—NIOSH—Hierarchy of Controls).
- Use good general laboratory safety practices as found in your organization’s chemical hygiene plan. Wear personal protective gear (nitrile or chemical-resistant gloves, lab coats, safety glasses, face shields, and closed-toed shoes) as needed.
- NIOSH guidance notes that engineering control systems, such as adequate ventilation or scrubbing of contaminants, are the preferred control methods for reducing potential exposures. A primary engineering control used in the nanotechnology industry during the handling, weighing, mixing, or sonication of engineered nanomaterials is a ventilated enclosure. NIOSH recommends the use of local exhaust ventilation (e.g., laboratory chemical fume hoods). Exhaust air should be passed through a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, and when feasible, released outside the facility. If the exhaust air is recirculated, then steps should be taken to ensure that recirculated air does not contain the nanoparticles (see NIOSH General Safe Practices for Working with Engineered Nanomaterials in Research Laboratories). Other engineering controls for safe handling include nanomaterial handling enclosures (glove box/isolators) and biological safety cabinets. Additional details are available in NIOSH’s Controlling Health Hazards When Working with Nanomaterials: Questions to Ask Before You Start.
- Respirators should only be used when engineering control systems are not feasible or where engineering controls alone may not be considered adequate to completely prevent exposure (NIOSH). If it is necessary to handle nanoparticle powders outside of a HEPA-filtered powered-exhaust laminar flow hood, wear appropriate respiratory protection. The appropriate respirator should be selected based on professional consultation, meet NIOSH certification requirements, and follow Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) standards on respiratory protective equipment (Personal Protective Equipment, Standard 1910.134).
- Be sure to consider the hazards of precursor materials in evaluating process hazards.
- Avoid skin contact with nanoparticles or nanoparticle-containing solutions by using appropriate personal protective equipment. The NIOSH Personal Protective Technology Program has the most up-to-date information on appropriate personal protective technologies for workforce safety.
- Dispose of and transport waste nanoparticles according to hazardous chemical waste guidelines such as EPA's Managing Laboratory Hazardous Waste guidance document. [PDF]
- Test vacuum cleaners used to clean up nanoparticles; use HEPA-filtered units. Personal protective equipment should be used during spill cleanups and equipment maintenance.
- Lab equipment and exhaust systems should also be evaluated prior to removal, remodeling, or repair.
- Evaluate equipment previously used to manufacture or handle nanoparticles for contamination prior to disposal or reuse.
- Given the differing synthetic methods and experimental goals, aerosol emissions controls should be carefully designed for the process, tested, and properly operated to be effective (see NIOSH Protecting Workers During the Handling of Nanomaterials). Controls should meet respiratory protection standards in OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment, Standard 1910.134 29 CFR 1910.134, if respiratory protection is used.
- Consideration should be given to the high reactivity of some ultrafine, powdery materials with regard to potential fire and explosion hazards.
- National Nanotechnology Initiative. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) Supplement to the President’s 2020 Budget. 2019. https://www.nano.gov/2019BudgetSupplement.
- Oberdörster, G.; Oberdörster, E.; Oberdörster, J. Nanotoxicology: An Emerging Discipline Evolving from Studies of Ultrafine Particles. Environ. Health Perspect. 2005, 113 (7), 823–839. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.7339.
- Schulte, P. A.; Leso, V.; Niang, M.; Iavicoli, I. Current State of Knowledge on the Health Effects of Engineered Nanomaterials in Workers: A Systematic Review of Human Studies and Epidemiological Investigations. Scand. J. Work. Environ. Health 2019, 45 (3), 217—238. https://doi.org/10.5271/sjweh.3800.
- Warheit, D. B. Hazard and Risk Assessment Strategies for Nanoparticle Exposures: How Far Have We Come in the Past 10 Years? F1000Research 2018, 7, 376–376. https://doi.org/10.12688/f1000research.12691.1.
- Warheit, D. B.; Sayes, C. M. Chapter 1.2 - Routes of Exposure to Nanoparticles: Hazard Tests Related to Portal Entries. In Nanoengineering, Dolez, P. I., Ed.; Elsevier: Amsterdam, 2015, 41–54. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-444-62747-6.00002-6.
- Schulte, P.; Roth, G.; Hodson, L.; Murashov, V.; Hoover, M.; Zumwalde, R.; Kuempel, E. D.; Geraci, C. L.; Stefaniak, A.; Castranova, V.; et al. Taking Stock of the Occupational Safety and Health Challenges of Nanotechnology: 2000–2015. J. Nanoparticle Res. 2016, 18. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11051-016-3459-1.
- Warheit, D. B.; Sayes, C. M.; Reed, K. L.; Swain, K. A. Health Effects Related to Nanoparticle Exposures: Environmental, Health and Safety Considerations for Assessing Hazards and Risks. Pharmacol. Ther. 2008, 120 (1), 35–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pharmthera.2008.07.001.
- Schubauer-Berigan, M. K.; Dahm, M. M.; Schulte, P. A.; Hodson, L.; Geraci, C. L. Characterizing Adoption of Precautionary Risk Management Guidance for Nanomaterials, an Emerging Occupational Hazard. J. Occup. Environ. Hyg. 2015, 12 (1), 69–75. https://doi.org/10.1080/15459624.2014.946515.
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