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Nanotechnology and respiratory risks, part 1

July 27, 2011
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While researchers are busy exploring the hundreds of commercial applications for nanotechnology, less attention is being given to determining the possible health implications of working with particles whose extraordinarily small size causes them to behave in strange, sometimes unpredictable ways.

So the question is: “Do the unique properties that make them so useful also make them uniquely dangerous?”

As well, since the most likely avenue of exposure is airborne, will existing respiratory protection (when it is used in detailing) be effective with nanotechnology compounds and polishes?

A precautionary approach

Although subatomic particles are more biologically active than larger particles of the same composition, scientists are not sure what that means in terms of their possible effects on human health. Studies suggest that exposure to nano-sized particles contributes to pulmonary problems like lung disease and decreased lung function.

Under what circumstances might exposure occur?

Researchers are working on developing ways to accurately assess the health risks of nanotechnology, the National Institute for Occupational Science and Health (NIOSH) recommends taking a precautionary approach to respiratory protection.

Develop a Risk Management Program

NIOSH says a nanotechnology risk management program should include:

  • Evaluating potential nano hazards in the workplace, using existing chemical, toxicology and health information;
  • Assessing the workers’ tasks to determine the potential for exposure; and
  • Training workers in the proper handling and use of nanomaterials.

You should reduce the exposure by changing your work practices, when feasible; followed by the use of controls like exhaust ventilation systems with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in your shop.

Respirators would come last on that list if the other methods are not successful at reducing exposure to your target level or they are not an option for whatever reason.

But are existing respirators effective with nonmaterial’s?

Despite the difficulties of studying particles that are only slightly larger than molecules there is data that answers that question.

It is hard to generate, control, and measure particles that are less than a hundred nanometers in size, so until there was really a need to do that kind of research, no one really tried to do it.

Extensive studies on filtration, leakage and respiratory protection performance have been conducted with findings that offer useful information for safety professionals only.

This article will continue next week and will discuss RSL guidelines and "inward leaking."

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