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AIHce: Global EHS Issues of Nanotechnology

More research and information sharing is needed to better understand nanotechnology hazards, said Kristen Kulinowski, Ph.D., in her keynote presentation June 3 at AIHce, where she unveiled a new wiki guide designed to help disseminate information about nanotechnology hazards in the occupational setting.

Kulinowski is the director of the International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON), a faculty fellow in the Department of Chemistry at Rice University in Houston and the director of external affairs at the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN). In her AIHce presentation, she discussed nanomaterials – chemical compounds at the nano scale – and what they mean for industrial hygiene.

The use and development of nanomaterials may have many benefits, such as advancing cancer therapy, tumor detection and water treatment. But nanotechnology may also present unique hazards that Kulinowski organized into three categories of risk: Risks to workers, risks to consumers and risks to the environment.

"Generally speaking, there's still a lot more hazard data being generated than exposure data," she said of nanotechnology research today. "That means we don't have a good enough picture to put together a risk equation for risk management."

Kulinowski added that there is "very, very limited amount of research" that addresses occupational hazards and implications associated with nanotechnology.

"So the key questions for people working with nanomaterials are: What are people doing right now in the occupational regime to deal with uncertainties of nanomaterials? What do you need to know to do the best job possible?" she asked. Finally, "Where are you going for information?"

Information Overload

In a 2006, ICON produced "A Review of Current Practices in the Nanotechnology Industry,"the first comprehensive, international survey of handling practices in the nanotechnology workplace. Key findings of the study, which was completed by the University of California, Santa Barbara, included:

  • Nano-specific EHS programs and training are widely reported;
  • Actual practices do not depart from conventional chemical safety practices;
  • There is an active interest in additional information; and
  • The main impediment is lack of information and guidance.

That final finding – lack of information and guidance as a main impediment – may be in part attributed to information delivery rather than information generation.

"There's now a lot of places people can go to get information about occupational handling of nanomaterials," Kulinowski said, referencing the U.S. Department of Energy,/ NIOSH,IRSST,and BAuA. Even with this information, Kulinowski said that right now, "We're not talking to each other enough."

Reducing Barriers

Kulinowski stressed the importance of reducing barriers to sharing information about nanotechnology and occupational practice. She identified the following common obstacles:

  • The Global Scale – Nanotechnology truly is a global issue, with research conducted in different countries, in different languages and within different cultural contexts.
  • Complexity – Nanotechnology's complexity and diversity makes it challenging to make general statements about it.
  • Time – People don't have time to wade through all the papers and research, Kulinowski said.
  • Legal issues – There are challenges associated with sharing information about processes and protocols because of concerns about liability and being held accountable in some larger, regulatory context.

"All of these barriers are real and we need to figure out how to reduce them," Kulinowski said.

ICON is working to help break down those barriers and encourage timely, practical and high-quality information sharing and communication through a new project announced at AIHce: the ICON GoodNanoGuide.


"The ICON GoodNanoGuide is a collaborate project that attempts to get people from around the world to share information in an online forum about how to handle nanomaterials in the occupational setting," Kulinowski said.

This guide is an online, interactive, collaborative platform created to help experts communicate information about handling nanomaterials in the occupational setting. It is a wiki, which means anyone can edit and make changes, which easily are tracked.

While Kulinowski recognized that some people may be wary of using a wiki – she said many may be familiar with Wikipedia's sometimes inconsistent performance – she explained that using a wiki for nanomaterial-handling practices can be successful for the following reasons:

  • This project describes a specific practice;
  • The wiki is written by and for practitioners;
  • It engages the global community and generates global interest;
  • It provides a forum for dialogue;
  • It is easily accessed; and
  • Information is instantly published, without a lengthy review or bureaucratic process.

"It's very easy to contribute and edit," she said. "You can easily format text, create hyperlinks and symbols. If you have any experience creating a Word document, you can edit a wiki."

The GoodNanoGuide, is still a beta version. Viewers can access the content with no registration requirements; can comment as users; and can contribute content as providers.

"Nanomaterials pose many complex challenges to the occupational safety professional," Kulinowski said. "But there are good resources out there already … It's not as if there is nothing out there to guide your practice. New knowledge is evolving rapidly and from many corners around the globe."

Overcoming the challenges of disseminating that information, meanwhile, may be key to providing protection from the potential hazards of an emerging technology.

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