Protecting Nanotech Workers from Health Risks

May 19, 2008
A study appearing in the May issue of Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine points out that nanotechnology companies must consider the steps they plan to take to protect the health of employees exposed to engineered nanoparticles.

“Companies currently involved with nanotechnology are faced with the dilemma of balancing a desire to expand a potentially bountiful technology with limited knowledge about the potential hazards,” the researchers wrote.

Lead author Paul A. Schulte, Ph.D., of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, noted that without information on specific health effects caused by nanoparticles, it is “difficult to identify an appropriate evidence-based occupational health surveillance strategy for workers handling nanomaterials.”

Schulte and his colleagues pointed out that as the number of workers exposed to nanoparticles continues to increase, there is "growing, but not definitive" evidence of potential health hazards. This evidence, however, mostly is derived from experimental studies in animals; there have been no published studies of health effects in groups of workers exposed to nanoparticles.

Medical Monitoring

Given the lack of data, the authors suggest a range of possible health surveillance approaches for nanotech workers. Depending on the circumstances, no targeted action beyond basic medical and hazard surveillance may be needed. In some settings, it may be appropriate to document the characteristics and handling of nanoparticles and to identify potentially exposed workers. Recording this information in a database would provide a basis for action if new health hazards came to light.

The next step, the researchers said, is to establish some form of medical monitoring, including either general health monitoring or targeted medical testing, such as focusing on changes in lung function. But in the absence of data on potential health effects, the value of medical monitoring is questionable: The occupational medicine physicians performing the examinations would not know if a specific abnormality is related to nanoparticle exposure.

The authors highlight the need for more research to guide health surveillance approaches in the nanotechnology industry. Basic science studies may be able to identify certain types of nanoparticles with higher or lower toxic potential, while follow-up studies of exposed workers might help identify emerging health conditions.

Meanwhile, establishing some type of exposure and employee tracking registry might be of value, the researchers suggested. This would provide a structured approach to identifying and maintaining communication with workers exposed to nanoparticles – especially if future health problems come to light.

"In the face of uncertainty about the hazards of nanoparticles, a corporate or societal response … may assure the public that appropriate efforts are being taken to identify and control exposures in a timely and responsible manner,” the authors concluded.

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