In the early 20th century, the health and safety profession experienced a profound cultural change as industrialization forced a shift in focus from safety hazards to the longer-term consequences of chemical exposures. Today, we are on the cusp of a similarly profound change thanks to the growing influence of nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology is everywhere. No longer is there any debate about if one will encounter the products of nanotechnology; it’s simply a matter of when. This new phase of material science—what many refer to as advanced material science—blends together select subsets of materials (synthetic chemicals, minerals, biologicals, and radiological materials) and infuses them into the manufacturing workplace of the 21st century.
Advanced material science (which includes nanotechnology and refers not only to new materials but to new processes and modifications of existing materials) has potential to exert tremendous influence on the industrial hygiene profession. The challenges (and opportunities) for industrial hygienists include building and sustaining 21st-century leaders, cultures, and systems to effectively assess and manage risks in these new and evolving areas. THE CROSS-DISCIPLINARY NATURE OF NANOTECHNOLOGY
Nanotechnology is a cross-disciplinary field that involves the creation and application of novel materials, devices, and systems created via the control and restructuring of matter at dimensions of roughly 1–100 nanometers in size. The size definition alone fails to adequately cover the nanotechnology spectrum, which encompasses not only engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) but also incidental nanoparticles created as byproducts of processes such as welding and combustion of fossil fuels. Many important functions of living organisms also take place at the nanoscale.
The ability to manipulate substances at the nanoscale has resulted in a convergence of biology, physics, engineering, and chemistry. Collaborations among professionals in these fields have yielded a variety of advanced materials such as nano-sized biosensors, polymer nanocomposites, and advanced synthetic polymers.
These technologies are driving significant change in many areas, and industrial hygiene is also affected. In the 21st century, industrial hygiene may be challenged by the convergence of disciplines, the advent of new tools, and a host of different approaches to processing. As a profession, we should make a concerted effort to get ahead of this trend. THE ECONOMIC PROMISE The economic promise of nanotechnology lies in its ability to alter characteristics of materials at the molecular level and to create new and advanced materials that tend to be lighter, stronger, and more reactive than materials made with larger particles. A blog post on the website of PTC Product & Service Advantage, a consulting company specializing in new technologies, indicates that nanomaterials are currently found in products ranging from golf clubs to synthetic bone, antimicrobial dressing, sunscreen, and jet engine parts.
The benefits of nanomaterials-based products continue to grow. An article published on the website of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) predicts that the next generation of graphene and carbon nanotube-based devices will lead to even lighter but stronger structures, while scalability of production will improve the ability to make more of the material and at lower prices. As commercialization of nano- and advanced materials accelerates, significant advances are expected in controlling quality, and in reducing costs due to economies of scale. With an emphasis on energy conservation, the ASME article argues that nanomaterials will play an important role in sustainability targets by reducing energy usage. In the field of medicine, nanotechnology will be applied to areas of diagnostics and treatment.
Another factor that may complicate efforts to track the evolution and use of nanomaterials is the industry’s relative silence.
THE POTENTIAL RISKS While the increased use of ENMs and advanced materials has elevated environmental and occupational health concerns, there has been no significant incidence of workplace injury or illness to date. The absence of injuries and illnesses may be due to the relatively recent use of these materials, precautionary EHS approaches, or, in some cases, good fortune. The occupational health professional who has followed nanotechnology has seen relatively few surprises and a general lack of fanfare.
Another factor that may complicate efforts to track the evolution and use of nanomaterials is the industry’s relative silence. Many entities that once incorporated (or even registered) the term “nano” into the naming of their products, companies, and as a part of their essential identity have become quiet for the most part. The industry appears to have adapted to general unease over the health and safety risks of nanotechnology, perhaps in part to avoid negative connotations of a “nano” label and perhaps to simply let the benefits of nanotechnology speak for themselves.
Concerns for potential nanotechnology hazards, exposures, and resulting risks have focused on the traditional approach used by industrial hygienists to address environmental and health risks. In its April 2013 Current Intelligence Bulletin 65: Occupational Exposure to Carbon Nanotubes and Nanofibers, NIOSH cites toxicological research indicating that the potency of these nanomaterials is largely determined by factors such as surface area, chemical composition, particle number, and surface reactivity. Once in the body, some types of nanomaterials have been shown to cross cell membranes and travel directly into the circulatory system or translocate to other organs (brain, kidney, central nervous system).
The fact that a material is “nano” may or may not influence its hazard, exposure, or resulting risk, and failure to use basic industrial hygiene precautions when working with any material in any form can have negative consequences. For example, in 2014, the American Journal of Industrial Medicine published a case report of nickel sensitization:
A 26-year-old female chemist formulated polymers and coatings using silver ink particles. When she later began working with nickel nanoparticle powder weighed out and handled on a lab bench with no protective measures, she developed throat irritation, nasal congestion, “post nasal drip,” facial flushing, and new skin reactions to her earrings and belt buckle which were temporally related to working with the nanoparticles.
Because nanoscale engineering has the potential to cause harm at the most fundamental level of human biology, a cautionary approach is warranted. While acute harm from nano- and advanced materials has yet to reveal a concern, toxicological studies cited by NIOSH do indicate that chronic issues may still be observed. The trend points toward an increased prevalence of these materials in both the processing systems that our profession oversees and the society we serve to protect.
Actual or perceived risk from ENMs and advanced materials poses a unique challenge to organizations that are involved at all stages of the value chain, from R&D to end users. As awareness grows, stakeholders need to know the risks associated with these materials. For this reason alone, the practice of industrial hygiene will increasingly need trustworthy sources of information. Organizations such as NIOSH, groups such as the AIHA Nanotechnology Working Group (NTWG), and websites such as the GoodNanoGuide serve as information clearinghouses and provide working knowledge of the health risks associated with these materials.
Fortunately, the skills that make up the core of industrial hygiene practice can also be applied to address the EHS risks associated with nanotechnology and advanced materials. A key question is: to what degree, if any, do nanomaterials pose a human health risk? An adequate response requires understanding the hazard characterization of nanomaterials; establishing appropriate exposure metrics, sampling, and analytic methodologies; and designing adequate control methods. The standard measures for evaluation and control of workplace hazards and exposures can be adapted successfully to nanomaterials.
Our biggest challenge may come from those who are unwilling to practice precautionary principles and who believe that waiting for regulatory action is a plan.
IH OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES Industrial hygienists who aren’t engaged with nanotechnology may fail to see its relevance to their work. But if they conduct a proactive survey around their organization or home, they may find that products containing nanomaterials are already present. In many cases, potential risks will directly depend on how the materials are used.
Our biggest challenge may come from those who are unwilling to practice precautionary principles and who believe that waiting for regulatory action is a plan. While regulators will have a role to play, the pace of change requires a proactive approach, since regulations tend to lag rather than lead new industries. Since business investment and innovation are driving change, industrial hygienists are even more dependent than normal on benchmarking within the IH community, identifying best practices, and working with other professional disciplines. THE EHS DEMAND Applications where nanotechnology and advanced materials are used cut across many areas of science and engineering, and professional organizations have devoted resources to staying current with developments in this area. These organizations’ members are either EHS professionals or have an interest in EHS, and are actively involved in developing standards and terminology. For instance, ASTM has established Technical Committee E56 on Nanotechnology along with sub-committees addressing nanotechnology EHS.
College students who enter fields such as construction management engineering are using the new technologies, materials, and processes without understanding their EHS implications. AIHA can exert considerable influence in this area through its outreach to non-EHS professionals and liaisons with other professional organizations.
Although relatively small compared to other professional groups, industrial hygienists are quite diverse. AIHA has done an admirable job creating community through volunteer groups and conferences. Industrial hygienists can play an important role in shaping a unified vision and culture by supporting AIHA through active participation in conferences and volunteer groups. THE NEXT WAVE Industrial hygienists are well positioned to use and improve our profession’s traditional industrial hygiene skills to anticipate, recognize, evaluate, control, and confirm protection of worker safety, health, well-being, and productivity in advanced materials and processes such as nanotechnology. We can use our experience to re-examine how we build and sustain robust safety cultures and systems to achieve and confirm protection and productivity in the workplace.
Our profession can build upon 20th-century thinking to effectively manage 21st-century EHS challenges. These challenges may present themselves through introduction of the next great semiconductor, the application of new and improved pesticides on crops, or use of advanced materials in additive manufacturing processes.
Nanotechnology is essentially a catch-all term that covers the many new ways of designing and using materials. The nanomaterials wave is just one of many to come that will be best managed by a modern EHS effort that incorporates continuous learning, professional development, and communication. JENNIFER DIMITRI is chair of the AIHA NTWG and an industrial hygienist at IBM. She can be reached at (408) 927-2325 or email@example.com. MICHELE SHEPARD, CIH, is NTWG vice-chair and a senior consultant with Colden Corporation. She can be reached at (518) 490-2261 or firstname.lastname@example.org. PAUL WEBB, CIH, CSP, is NTWG secretary and a senior consultant at Colden Corporation. He can be reached at (508) 733-2405 or email@example.com. JOHN BAKER, CIH, is NTWG secretary-elect and a senior project manager at Bureau Veritas. He can be reached at (281) 832-2894 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Acknowledgements: This article incorporates knowledge and insight from the AIHA Nanotechnology Working Group. Special thanks to the NTWG executive leadership, including Bruce Stockmeier, Charles Geraci, Chris Laszcz-Davis, Donald Ewert, Kevin J. Sheffield, Lawrence Gibbs, Mark Hoover, Tom Peters, Michael Rosenow, Rebecca Lally, and Candace Tsai. For more information about NTWG, visit the NTWG Web page.
NANOTECHNOLOGY RESOURCES For industrial hygienists interested in learning more about nanotechnology EHS, the GoodNanoGuide and the NIOSH nanotechnology website are helpful resources. At AIHce 2015 in Salt Lake City, the AIHA NTWG is sponsoring two half-day professional development courses, a roundtable, and a podium session. AIHA members are welcome to participate in the AIHA NTWG. NIOSH, through the National Nanotechnology Initiative, is the lead government agency tasked with coordinating research in occupational health and safety aspects of nanotechnology. NIOSH personnel are actively involved with the AIHA NTWG and provide support to AIHA members through their conference participation, educational outreach, research, and technical assistance. NIOSH also supports outreach and interdisciplinary collaborations through partnerships and contributions to other professional society activities such as the nanotechnology committee of the Health Physics Society. The following sources represent a helpful introduction to the topic of nanotechnology and EHS:
American Journal of Industrial Medicine: “Occupational handling of nickel nanoparticles: A case report,” September 2014. ASME.org: “Top 5 Trends in Nanotechnology,” March 2013. NIOSH: Current Intelligence Bulletin 65: Occupational Exposure to Carbon Nanotubes and Nanofibers, April 2013. PTC Product and Service Advantage blog: “Nanotechnology Gains Momentum in Manufacturing,” August 2014.
Nanomaterials: The Next Wave
Nanotechnology and the 21st-century Workplace
BY JENNIFER DIMITRI, MICHELE N. SHEPARD, PAUL J. WEBB, AND JOHN BAKER