Nanotechnology and materials are no longer science fiction. These inspiring innovations deliver significant healthcare advancements and improvements to everyday products that enhance our quality of life. But like other products and materials that appeared to offer a tremendous upside, nanomaterials pose a health and safety risk on par with asbestos.

Working safely with nanomaterials tasks employers with remembering the widespread benefits touted by the asbestos industry decades ago. The need for firm nanotechnology safety measures that involve personal protective equipment (PPE) and disposable clothing becomes clear once industry leaders possess a working knowledge of the materials.

What are Nanomaterials?

Although the scientific community has not necessarily reached an agreement on what constitutes nanomaterial, wide-reaching organizations recognize common attributes. Nanomaterials are largely identified as miniature items that can be up to 10,000 times smaller than a human hair. The external dimensions typically range between 1-100 nanometers, rendering these potential health hazards undetectable by the naked eye. The following examples highlight how small nanomaterials are by comparison.

  • One inch has 25,400,000 nanometers in it.
  • A newspaper page is approximately 100,000 nanometers in thickness.

If you had cherry tomato the equivalent of one nanometer, the entire Earth would proportionally equal one meter to it. The shape, size, and other characteristics widely differ, but nanomaterials are often considered a microcosm of larger-scale materials.

Nanomaterials present exciting applications in fields such as communication, medicine, engineering, and information technology, among many others. However, the same microscopic characteristics and flexibility that open new doors also make working safely with nanomaterials and technologies critical.

What is Nanotechnology?

Nanoscience and nanotechnology reportedly trace their origins to an American Physical Society talk led by Richard Feynman in 1959 called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” Feynman put forward the concept of scientifically manipulating items as small as molecules and atoms. His precursor to the Ted Talk may have proven instrumental in developing the scanning tunneling microscope that allowed scientists to see atoms and develop modern-day nanotechnology during the early 1980s.

At the core, nanotechnologies involve designing, producing, and applying nanoscale materials, devices, and systems with superior properties. These technologies have advantages that the larger-scale materials and devices may not. Manipulated nanomaterials tend to provide reactivity and strength that outpaces their large-scale counterparts. These altered materials also may deliver quantum effects that influence the magnetic and electrical behaviors of other items.

Nanotechnology ranks among the most promising fields in terms of advancing human interests. But by this same token, working safely with nanomaterials poses a significant challenge, not unlike asbestos. The tiny-scale nanomaterials can penetrate the skin, enter the eyes, or be inhaled into the lungs without a worker’s knowledge. Like materials such as asbestos that once offered improved quality of life and commercial benefits, the significant health and wellness risk tasks industry leaders with following stringent nanomaterials guidelines.

Where are Nanomaterials Found?

Separating nanomaterials into two distinct groups may simplify an understanding of their origins. On the one hand, some nanoparticles are considered naturally occurring elements often present in things such as volcanic ash, sand, and biological items such as viruses.

On the other hand, nanomaterials can also be produced as a byproduct of human activity. A prime example involves carbon nanotubes that are widely considered to be engineered even though they can be synthesized naturally. Carbon nanotubes are produced in significant quantities using arc discharge, chemical vapor deposition systems, and lasers, among others.

In terms of nanotechnology safety and health concerns, companies have included nanomaterials such as synthetic amorphous silica in concrete and processed materials for decades. Other more recent applications involve nano-titanium dioxide being used as an ingredient in sunscreen, paint, and to block UV rays in wide-reaching items. As next-generation materials are developed, health and workplace safety agencies developing nanomaterials guidelines may lag behind these advancements.

What are the Major Classes of Nanomaterials and their Benefits?

While nanomaterials can occur naturally or may be created by human activity, industries often classify them based on chemical composition. Commercial applications typically put what scientists uncover into enhancing existing products or creating new ones. When looking at nanoscience through the lens of workplace health and safety risks, it may prove valuable to consider the ways industries view them. These include the following.

  • Fullerenes, Nanotubes, Nanowires: This class of nanomaterials is typically created from a carbon base. Scientists and nanomaterial manufacturers leverage what is known as the C60 molecule, also called the “buckyball.” Included in this group are the nanotubes, which are merely elongated buckyballs. Nanowires, for example, enjoy widespread application in MOS field-effect transistors. These are considered fundamental elements of modern electronic devices.
  • Metals: The use of metallic-based nanomaterials enjoys pervasive commercial usages. But perhaps the most popular is the development of nanosilver. Due to its tremendous and broad antimicrobial benefits, nanosilver ranks among the prized elements found in toothpaste, bandages, catheters, disinfectants, and ongoing research may soon integrate it into livestock feed and pet foods to reduce reliance on antibiotics. The growing use of nanosilver across sectors highlights why discussions about working safely with nanomaterials and the use of personal protective equipment have never been more crucial.
  • Ceramics: Nanomaterials developed from titanium dioxide have also generated considerable attention from wide-reaching industries. Their appearance in sunscreen products was followed by innovative uses in items such as so-called “self-cleaning glass.” These coatings require workers to apply them with an eye on nanotechnology safety measures. Today, the energy sector must also take determined safety measures as cerium oxide nanos have emerged as a fuel-efficiency additive.
  • Quantum Dots: The exceedingly bright photoluminescence of quantum dots have found a home in medical imaging. Quantum dots possess improved longevity and heightened luminescence that enhances medical images beyond conventional dyes. The surface of these nanos can be manipulated to target things such as cancer cells in the human body. The cutting-edge nanoscience involving these materials and technologies is quickly proving to be a medical game-changer.
  • Polymeric: Manufactured from tiny polymeric hydrocarbon strands, this class of nanomaterials improves drug delivery systems. Polymeric nanoparticles guide drug molecules to specific cells based on biomarkers. While the medical benefits appear obvious, the cosmetics industry has also jumped on the bandwagon. These nanomaterials are currently being leveraged to position cosmetic products under the skin.

Few disagree that innovative nanotechnology can produce exciting products and materials. But there are still information gaps that stem from the unique physical and chemical makeups of nanomaterials. The interactions between existing and yet-to-be-discovered nano applications pose a threat to human beings and the environment.

Fast-accumulating information regarding toxicity is the driving force behind enacting nanomaterials guidelines and safety regulations that keep pace with newly-minted products and uses. Industry leaders would be well-served to err on the side of caution and maintain a complete inventory of disposable personal protective clothing, accessories, and breathable masks. Advanced nanotechnology could prove to be a double-edged sword that furthers life-saving inventions while threatening workers just like asbestos.

How Are Workers Exposed to Nanomaterials?

It’s not uncommon for employees to unwittingly come in contact with these microscopic elements during the production of nanomaterials and technologies. For this reason, working safely with nanomaterials is akin to handling crystalline silica particles and asbestos. But what effectively compounds the nanotechnology safety risk is that these materials cannot be seen without using a microscope. Nanomaterials leave no recognizable dust or airborne mist, putting production-level workers at a disadvantage.

The risk to everyday people does not necessarily end with manufacturing. Workers in the supply chain may also suffer nanomaterial exposure. Research suggests that insufficient nanomaterials guidelines have been put in place to protect supply chain workers. Other areas that present a clear and present danger include healthcare settings, laboratories, construction sites, maintenance occupations, and product testing facilities, among others.

What are the Health Hazards & Telltale Symptoms of Nano Exposure?

Researchers have determined that a wide range of nanomaterials have an inherently toxic effect on people. Manufactured nanomaterials, including carbon nanotubes, cause significant health and wellness conditions consistent with those of asbestos, or worse.

Toxic nanomaterials have been linked to heart and lung conditions consistent with their asbestos predecessor. These newly developed materials also appear to have similar potential to harm internal organs such as the liver, spleen, and digestive tract to name a few. But what makes nano-toxicity increasingly dangerous is that penetrations into the eyes, ears, and mouth allow harmful agents to migrate into the brain. They also pose a risk to the unborn children in pregnant women. A caveat that increases the dangers of working with nanomaterials involves the fact they can form combustible dust.

In essence, nanotechnologies have a mind of their own and target the body at will. Given that asbestos ranks as the world’s deadliest commercial product, working safely with nanomaterials requires a laser focus on best practices and mandated use of personal protective gear and disposable protective clothing.

What are Some Safety Measures for Reducing Exposure?

After concluding that these materials and technologies rank among the proven workplace health dangers, OSHA published somewhat open-ended nanomaterials guidelines. Recognizing that the nano industry continues to roll out next-generation products and materials, OSHA tasks workplace safety supervisors with implementing nanotechnology safety measures consistent with the threat. These include the following.

  • Engineering Controls: Work environments must include appropriate ventilation and exhaust. Workers cannot manage nanomaterials in enclosed spaces.
  • Administrative Controls: Handwashing facilities must be accessible, and employers are required to post and distribute literature that details the health and safety risks nanomaterials present. Cleanup and decontamination protocols must be established to work with nanomaterials.
  • Medical Screening: Workers who may have been exposed to nanomaterials must be medically screened and monitored based on OSHA standards.

OSHA also mandates that certified PPE, breathing equipment, and disposable clothing must be provided to workers. That’s largely because working safely with nanomaterials means preventative measures must be taken to ensure they do not land on the skin, get inhaled, or penetrate the eyes, ears, or nose.

What PPE is Necessary When Working Safely with Nanomaterials?

Scientific data and explanations regarding nanotechnology and nanomaterials can overcomplicate preventative measures. Industry leaders who make safety policies and protective clothing decisions can simplify their approach by viewing nano-safety through the asbestos lens. The following PPE proves equally appropriate when protecting workers from either threat.

  • Masks: Breathable masks must have the capacity to filter airborne particles. Those used to prevent nanomaterial inhalation must meet the necessary standard.
  • Gloves: Protective gloves are considered standard protective equipment. Both asbestos and nanomaterials can penetrate the skin or be transferred when people touch their faces.
  • Eye Protection: Googles rank among the best protections against materials penetrating the eye sockets.
  • Coveralls: Dust particles can accumulate on any part of the body. Head to ankle coveralls should include hoods. One of the key differences between asbestos and nano suits is that the latter may require protective clothing that resists heat. Some nanomaterials are combustible.

It’s also important for decision-makers to select disposable protective clothing inventories that can be readily accessorized with hairnets, shoe coverings, and other as-needed precautions. International Enviroguard produces a complete inventory of disposable personal protective clothing and accessories that exceed industry standards.

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