We sat down to discuss nanotechnology, nanomaterials and safety issues within this upstart industry with Donna Heidel, CIH, Prevention Through Design Coordinator for the CDC/NIOSH (Centers for Disease Control/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) Education and Information Division; and Charles Geraci, Jr., PhD., CIH, the Coordinator of the CDC’s Nanotechnology Research Center. What Heidel and Geraci had to say revealed a set of issues that go deeper than simple safe handling best practices.
Question: What are some of the big concerns with lab safety when it comes to organizations that are producing or handling Nano technological components?
Charles Geraci, Jr: First thing I’m going to do is help you out—it’s not nanotechnology that’s the issue. Nanotechnology is a collection of sciences that do a lot of things. One of the things that’s real important for us in occupational safety and health is it creates new materials or new forms of old materials. So, it’s the nanomaterial that’s the real hook.
Through the magic of nanotechnology you are now proposing to make or handle new materials that are called nanomaterials. They come in a variety of forms and the form you choose to use is what drives your need for containment and control. If you chose to use a nanomaterial which might be called a nanoparticle or nanofiber or nanoplatelet, but it is the nanometer scale form of a material. It’s likely to be one of the few brand-new-to-the-world materials like carbon nanotubes or, more than likely, it’s the new nano-scale formulation of a familiar material like nanosilica or nanoaluminum, so we’re kind of working in both arenas – new material versus a new size and form of a known material.
Either way, this puts a whole new spin on material science, whether you’re in ceramics or plastics or paints or of you used physical materials, sooner or later, someone in your company or someone in your organization is going to come up with the idea of using the nanometer form of that material. So, the real challenge is because of their size and shape, but let’s just stay with size. At the nanometer scale, they’re so much smaller than all the things we’ve learned so much about at the micrometer scale – we all know about hazards, control and containment in the micron and micrometer range, now we’re working three orders of magnitude smaller, so a lot of the things we thought we knew about the physics, chemistry and behavior of materials are being relearned in many cases.
So we’re in a new grey area that’s cool and exciting, but it carries with it some concern, some health and safety concerns.
The biggest concern is inhalation. Right now, not a lot of evidence that nanoparticles can penetrate the skin easily or readily, but there is a lot of evidence…it does represent an airborne…an aerosol of nanoparticles does represent a real or a demonstrable inhalation hazard, so that’s what we want to control.
Donna Heidel: The question becomes, are nanoparticles so different that current controls don’t work, or is everything ok?
Charles Geraci, Jr: What we’re seeing here, in two cases, primarily in labs, [is that] they are OK if you assume everything works well for nanoparticle formulation and use of materials. That’ s a nice way of saying that your average, everyday conventional or bypass laboratory fume hood is not the best containment device for dry powder form of nano-scale material.
That’s where a device like the one produced by Flow Sciences fills a need. It’s good containment; it’s not turbulent containment; it’s flexible containment in that it can go where the project needs are. And so, I think as far as a company like Flow Sciences is concerned, that’s a need they can meet. And it’s been met well for years in the pharmaceutical world, but now you have a whole new population of people and a growing population of people moving into that ultra-fine powder applications and use space where the pharma, cosmetics and pigment worlds used to be. Now there’s a whole bunch of new people, including research labs, who need to learn how to deal with it.
So, you might be synthesizing these materials and trying to purify and characterize them or you might be bringing some of these materials into your lab and developing an application – a plastics lab is a great example. Nothing more fun to see than a couple of materials scientists who call themselves plastics engineers dealing with synthetic-organic chemistry they find in biology and the mechanical engineer come up with a really cool new application of nanomaterials in a composite. None of them have a clue what each other’s safety rules are all about.
The CDC and NIOSH have released papers outlining safe practices and prevention through design principles; these papers are available free of charge at www.cdc.gov/niosh. Navigate to topic pages on nanotechnology and prevention through design to download or read these reports today.
The National Nanotech Initiative, a collection of 25 government agencies working to establish safe practices, have published many articles on safe materials handling and other issues surrounding nanotechnology and nanomaterials. Learn more at www.nano.gov.
Jason Frye produced this story with the assistance of Flow Sciences Inc., which produces containment systems for laboratories, pilot plants and manufacturers. These products are designed to protect operators from exposure to hazardous particulates and vapors while performing delicate operations.