Researcher: States Must Be Empowered to Address Emerging Nanotechnology Issues

Ephraim Massawe, Ph.D., told EHS Today that state agencies and programs must be empowered with better information and resources to address emerging nanotechnology issues and to protect workers, the public and the environment from possible nanomaterial exposures and hazards.

“We need a network to share the information we currently have so we can take precautionary action [for nanomaterials] immediately,” Massawe said in an interview with EHS Today. “We have to inform our communities and workers that these materials are there and are revolutionizing the way we live. We need to get that information out as quickly as possible.”

Massawe, an assistant professor of occupational safety, health, and environment in the Department of Computer Science and Industrial Technology at Southeastern Louisiana University, is exploring the information and technical needs of state government agencies and programs across the country, beginning with an examination of work practices and nano-enhanced technologies used at various EPA Superfund sites.

Massawe explained that nanomaterials are being used to clean up hazardous wastes such as persistent organic pollutants. Currently, about 30 EPA Superfund sites are using nanomaterials in remediation operations. He is working with experts from EPA, NIOSH and the United Nations to evaluate the hazardous wastes being treated, chemical and properties of nanomaterials being used and their handling practices and potential emission sources.

Currently, Massawe is preparing a questionnaire to send to state agencies to examine what, specifically, states need to know right now to manage nanomaterials and possible risks, particularly those related to environmental remediation.

The Next Generation

Whitney Mayers, an occupational safety, health and environment major at Southeastern Louisiana University who is working with Massawe on his research, called her work “an eye-opener.”

“I learned nanotechnology is used to clean a Superfund site in a way that we never expected,” she said. “They want to jump head in using nanotechnology, but we don’t have any research [for] health effects.”

Mayers echoed Massawe’s sentiments that the state level is a vital place to focus nanotechnology research and resources. “The state level is where you get things done,” she explained. “It’s like a ladder. You have to start at the state level because they are the ones interacting with these materials personally.”

In addition to focusing on state-level needs, Massawe added that resources must be invested in the next generation of professionals who will address issues like nanotechnology.

“We could do a lot more by empowering the generation of industrial hygienists and public health workers and students in this field by giving them the appropriate education,” he said, “because they’re the ones who are going to be working out there.”

While little currently is known about how nanomaterials might interact with the human body and the environment, Mayers is hopeful that agencies can get on the right path to best address possible future challenges and health effects.

“I believe this is an opportunity for the states and the federal agencies to do something completely right,” Mayers said. “We need to start researching and taking care of the problems and doing more testing now instead of trying to jump five steps into this and just use the nanotechnology for the remediation It needs to be tested and the knowledge needs to be spread before you go farther. It’s definitely an opportunity to do it right.”

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