AIHce: Managing Nanotechnology Risk with Limited Data

A roundtable discussion at AIHce in Portland, Oregon, on May 18 focused on the challenges industrial hygienists and safety professionals face in assessing the risks of nanomaterials with limited data.

“[Nanotechnology] is coming to you at your workplace soon, if it’s not already there,” said Charles L. Geraci, Ph.D., CIH, coordinator of the NIOSH Nanotechnology Research Center. “Exposures do occur in the workplace,” he added. “They are already occurring.”

Geraci acknowledged that industrial hygienists are most comfortable when they have access to guidance, numbers and occupational exposure guidelines. “We need a number we can put up there to target and to shoot for our controls and exposure assessment,” he said.

Unfortunately, with nanotechnology, that data isn’t always readily available. Even so, conducting exposure assessments of nanomaterials – engineered materials that measure one-billionth of a meter or smaller – is a critical component of developing a good risk management program.

When conducting these assessments, industrial hygienists must determine whether to use mass, number, size, shape or surface area. While mass is still the primary exposure limit metric reported, additional metrics must be explored as well, Geraci stressed. He suggested taking the approach of defining not what the material is but what it does when in the body or system.

Public Perception and Regulations

Larry Gibbs, CIH, associate vice provost for environment, health and safety at Stanford University, explained during the roundtable that nanomaterial risk perception and risk communication must accompany any risk assessment plan. Because professionals must make these decisions without having all the information necessary for quantitative risk assessment, they must draw from established practices and analogous methods.

Additionally, Gibbs said, the public perception of the risks associated with nanomaterials can play a role in both the governance and societal acceptance of nanotechnology. He suggested the following key governance principles for nanotechnology:

  • The regulatory response should be coordinated.
  • The regulatory response should be flexible and adaptive.
  • A lifecycle approach should be taken to risk management.
  • There should be a balance between costs and benefits of regulations.
  • Accountability and transparency should be ensured the regulatory system.

Despite the challenges industrial hygienists face in conducting risk assessments, Gibbs concluded that he believes “the future really is bright” for this field.

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