In response, companies say they are developing special programs and procedures for mitigating risks to workers and consumers, according to the ICON survey. However, companies and labs have workers using conventional EHS practices when handling nanomaterials – even though the practices were developed to deal with bulk materials that can have markedly different chemical properties than their nano-sized counterparts.
"The use of conventional practices for handling nanomaterials appears to stem from a lack of information on the toxicological properties of nanomaterials, as well as nascent regulatory guidance regarding the proper environmental, health and safety practices that should be used with them," said Dr. Kristen Kulinowski, director of ICON, a coalition of academic, industrial, governmental and civil society organizations that commissioned the survey.
"A Beachhead for Future Studies"
ICON is describing the survey as "the first comprehensive, international survey of workplace safety practices in the burgeoning nanotechnology industry."
"The value of this study is that we brought together knowledge of academic and industry laboratory practices, toxicologic risk assessment and social science approaches," said Dr. Barbara Herr Harthorn, principal investigator and co-director of the NSF Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California Santa Barbara (UC Santa Barbara), and co-principal investigator on the ICON study. "This allowed us to gather and analyze a unique set of detailed data from around the globe, establishing a beachhead for future studies and a first step toward developing safe handling guidelines for nanomaterials."
Survey data were collected this summer from 64 organizations in North America, the European Union, Asia and Australia. North American and Japanese respondents each represented 39 percent of those surveyed, with 17 percent from the European Union and 5 percent from Australia.
About 80 percent of responses were from private-sector companies, including for-profit entities that are developing or have developed at least one product containing nanomaterials.
Workers on the "Frontiers"
Workers occupy the frontiers of nanotechnology development, ICON points out.
Engineered nanomaterials are intentionally designed to take advantage of properties that emerge at the nanoscale, and nanotech workers typically face the greatest exposure risks from engineered nanomaterials. For example, in products containing nanomaterials that are incorporated in a plastic composite or other solid matrix, risks to consumers are believed to be minimal because the materials are locked up tight. But workers who make the products, and who handle the nanomaterials in raw form, face more risk of exposure, according to ICON.
There remains little specific information about the potential harm workers face from most engineered nanomaterials. By attempting to understand how employers and workers are currently approaching the development and implementation of workplace safety practices, ICON and UC Santa Barbara say they are taking an important step toward the development and global adoption of best practices to minimize exposure and hazard from engineered nanomaterials.
"This is an important study because it reinforces the perspective that there needs to be more information regarding the toxicology of new nanomaterials and how they should be handled in the contexts of industry, consumers and the environment," said Dr. Patricia Holden, principal investigator for this project and associate professor in the Bren School at UC Santa Barbara, where she co-advised four master's students in this research as part of their group thesis.
"A More Comprehensive Evaluation Was Needed"
The survey and report were part of a two-phase project aimed at determining how industry is managing the occupational safety risks that may be posed by certain nanomaterials.
"When ICON began discussing the need for best-practices guidelines for handling nanomaterials, we quickly realized there was little documentation of existing workplace policies and practices," Kulinowski said. "It's hard to know where you need to go if you don't know where you are. With only limited anecdotal evidence of EHS practices available, we decided that a more comprehensive evaluation was needed."
The first-phase report – "Current Knowledge and Practices regarding Environmental Health and Safety in the Nanotechnology Workplace" – was issued last month. It offered a review and analysis of existing efforts to develop best practices for workplace safety in the nascent nanotech industry.
The second-phase report takes a snapshot of industry practices currently in use. Taken together, ICON asserts that the two reports provide the first-ever overview of environmental health and safety in the nanotechnology workplace.
NIOSH: Survey Will Provide "Valuable Insight"
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Director Dr. John Howard said the agency will "review with great interest" ICON's latest report "in our ongoing efforts to further scientific research and provide interim recommendations on safe approaches to nanotechnology."
"We appreciate [UC Santa Barbara's] partnership, early in their process, in inviting us to participate in the planning and design of the survey," Howard said. "This work will give researchers a better understanding of current work practices in the nanotechnology industry, and valuable insight into current information gaps that might exist in understanding and managing the occupational health implications of this revolutionary technology."
ICON, which commissioned the survey and worked with UC Santa Barbara's team during both phases of the project, is administered by Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology.
ICON issued a call for proposals for the study in late 2005 and awarded the grant to the UC Santa Barbara team in March. Both the survey and report were produced by a research team from UC Santa Barbara that includes environmental scientists, sociologists and corporate environmental management experts and anthropologists.
The report is available at http://icon.rice.edu.