Employers should immediately move to eliminate or reduce workplace exposure to nanomaterials, amid growing evidence from animal studies that they can be harmful to human health, according to the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).
The researchers also found that dangerous workplace exposure to nanomaterials might not be confined to their initial manufacturing, but might also occur when finished products are disturbed, such as during cutting, sanding, or drilling.
“At the present time, safety data sheets and other safety information that accompanies finished products may not reliably indicate the presence of engineered nanomaterials or their potential release during typical or atypical activities that may disturb or disrupt the product.”
“ACOEM supports the proper labelling of products containing nanomaterials, especially if reasonably anticipated use, maintenance, or handling might result in potential nanoparticle exposure.”
What are nanomaterials?
Nanomaterials are, as the name suggests, tiny. Invisible to the naked eye, and at less than a millionth of a metre in size, their physical and chemical make-up results in materials with less weight, greater reactivity, increased strength, and improved electrical characteristics.
They are increasingly used in industries such as electronics, aerospace, construction, medical technology, and automotive – with no sign of slowing down. As a global industry, nanotechnology is tipped to value US $174 billion by 2025.
ACOEM says that while there is currently no definite links between exposure to nanomaterials and adverse health conditions in humans, there is now “accumulating evidence from animal studies that exposure to some nanomaterials is harmful”.
One European study, found that inhaled nanoparticles in the body could create lung inflammation and heart problems. It also found nanoparticles could potentially move from the lungs to other organs such as the brain, the liver, the spleen, and possibly the foetus in pregnant women.
What can employers do?
Because nanotechnology is a recent development, the health and safety effects of exposure to nanomaterials, and what levels of exposure may be acceptable, are subjects of ongoing research.
The researches say that given the uncertainty surrounding human health effects, “prevention or reduction of exposure, using the hierarchy of controls, seems prudent”.
“Engineering controls, such as source enclosure, local exhaust ventilation, and high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration, should substantially reduce or completely eliminate exposures.”
“Robust controls that prevent exposures may represent the most prudent response at this time to the lack of information on health effects and dose-response. Employee training in safe work practices is also important.”
Access ACOEM’s complete guidance document here.