10 frequently asked questions about nanomaterials that all prevention technicians should know

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1. Is an exposure to nanomaterials in the workplace possible?


More than 1,300,000 products available on the market incorporate nanomaterials that encompass many productive fields: electronics, building materials, textiles, cosmetics, food, automotive, cookware … and so on.

It is known that nanotechnology has an labour impact on workers.

2. Is there an obligation to identify, assess and control the risks from exposure to nanomaterials?

Yes, yes and yes.

Like any other product, nanomaterials are under the general rules applied to existing security in Europe and in Spain.

3. But… Is there specific safety regulations on nanomaterials?


There is not even an approved official definition of nanomaterial. Currently there is a definition recommendation by the European Commission  that will be reviewed this year:

We can define nanomaterials as materials that are neutral, secondary or manufactured material containing particles, loose or as an aggregate or agglomerate and in which 50% or more of the particle numbers in one or more external dimensions in the range of sizes between 1 nm to 100 nm”

Nor are there approved occupational exposure limits.

4. So,  am I and my company obligated to act against the risk of exposure to nanomaterials?


The current loophole situation does not justify not acting. In the use of your professional liability, before the risk of exposure to nanomaterials, you should apply a precautionary principle.

In addition, regulations will arrive in the future. When the time comes, some kind of responsibility will be required of the companies and professionals who had not acted. Do not let this happen to you!

5. Where do I start to control exposure to nanomaterials?

First, you must know whether your workplace is dealing with nanomaterials, and identify them. This is complicated because, in practice, not even the leading companies in the world have safety data sheets characterizing the “nano” components of their products.

Although everyday there are more indices -such as this for example– compiling items on the market that contain nanomaterials, it will be your knowledge of the production process in a company which should give you some clues. If a raw material incorporated into a product has radically changed its performance lately, maybe you should talk to the supplier to expand the information.

Or perhaps you have not yet realized how fast the cement used in construction cures, or the high performance and the lack of insects in some agricultural production, or the efficiency of paint and treatments on any type of surface … ?

6. Once nanomaterials are identified, how can I assess the risk of exposure?

Technically, nanomaterials allow the application of assessment methods used in “traditional” industrial hygiene. By active sampling, we can use similar systems, although the pumps need to be of high flow, which are large and heavy. This limits the possibility of personal sampling due to the tight supply in today’s market for sufficiently portable pumps. Furthermore, existing models do not discriminate between ultrafine particles (<2.5 nm).

Stay tuned for improvements in sampling equipment, which will improve quickly.

You’ll find more information in NTP ACGIH TLV 877 “Risk assessment of exposure to nanoparticles using simplified methodologies.”

7. What nanoparticle control measures  can I apply?

Traditional hierarchy and control measures for hygiene risks can be applied  in the case of exposure to nanoparticles, with a twist:

hierarchy_corrective_measuresCurrently, considering the elimination and/or substitution of a nanomaterial for another is meaningless. In the first case (elimination) because it is an advance that will not be given up and in the second place (substitution) because they may not have a substitute, and in the case of having it, the safety of the substitute would be almost impossible to guarantee with the technical knowledge of many nanomaterials today.

Therefore, it is best to think directly in engineering controls, conditioned by the characteristics of the nanoparticles. For example:

  • Modify a production line with wet retention processes for nanoparticles;
  • Improving the isolation of contaminant containment systems;
  • Review dilution ventilation systems that will not work for recycling air contaminated with nanoparticles, or increase the power of local exhaust equipment to capture larger particles that may become dangerous when adhering to these nanoparticles.

Work practices should be much more comprehensive, especially with regard to cleaning and maintenance work departments.

You must also increase the effectiveness of personal protective equipment in place in your company, especially respirators (FFP3, HEPA) protection for dermal contamination.

8. As a professional of risk prevention, is it worth focusing on this?

“In the long term, nanotechnology will require a revolutionary new approach to health and safety at work ”

These are the words of John Howard, director of the National Institute for Safety and Health at Work in the United States. NIOSH is one of the organizations that invest the most in nanotechnology safety in the world.

Nanotechnology will certainly bring new and important aspects in the field of occupational health and safety. If you do not want to stay behind professionally, it is worth studying about the health and safety of nanomaterials.

9. Talking about nanotechnology in general, when was it discovered?

Lycurgus Cup, 4th century Roman nanotechnology

Lycurgus Cup, 4th century Roman nanotechnology

Therefore, nanomaterials that are in nature itself such as part of mineral compounds, projected sea water as a spray or when a fire breaks out or a volcanic eruption, for example.

Although unintentional, human action has also been the source of nanoparticles for centuries as a result of many activities: Smoke from cooking, combustion gases emitted from vehicles, industrial process waste or even the creation of works of art or utensils throughout history…

The concept of nanotechnology as a science known to control and use the nanoscale begins to emerge from the second half of the 20th century, producing some 20 years ago the boom of the discipline as we know it today.

10. How much is invested in the safety and health of nanotechnology?

Between 2007 and 2011, the EU invested 2.56 billion euros in programs for nanotechnology research. In the coming years, until 2020, this investment will be significantly increased.

However, the United States is the country that has invested the most in research and the development of nanotechnology through the National Nanotechnology Initiative. In recent years, investment in “NanoEHS” (including environmental issues) has gone from 3 to 7% of the total NNI budget. It is the largest investment in health and safety within the world of nanotechnology research.





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