NIOSH Releases Nanomaterial Safety Research Plans

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by | May 22, 2014

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National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the US federal agency responsible for research and recommended practices to prevent work-related injuries and illness. More than a decade ago, NIOSH recognized that future nanomaterial workers — more than consumers or the general public — faced the greatest potential to be exposed to engineered nanomaterials and any risks. In response, NIOSH organized a research center drawing on the expertise of NIOSH scientists from a wide range of disciplines from across the country to prioritize and carry out an evolving program of research necessary to assess the potential hazard of particular nanomaterials in labs and commerce, and to give employers appropriate guidance to handle them safely.

NIOSH’s Nanotechnology Research Center recently released its 2014-2016 research and guidance strategic development plan, detailing work under way and to be completed in the next three years. This work is important. While NIOSH’s recommendations are not legally binding, its research and methods are generally well respected and its recommendations are influential. Indeed, its 2005 draft publication, “Safe Nanotechnology: An Information Exchange with NIOSH” and subsequent updates, provide the framework and foundation for the leading international voluntary standards on safe handling of nanomaterials in the workplace, including standards from ASTM International, the International Standards Organization (ISO) and the British Standards Institute. While firms working with nanomaterials are not obligated to follow NIOSH guidance or methods, these recommendations will be viewed by many as state-of-the-art, and company leaders may later be asked by employees or investors to explain why they chose a different path.

NIOSH’s 2014 research and guidance plan updates a 2009 version. Current plans call for a great deal of basic research, but unlike many such programs, NIOSH’s plans are directed at very practical and immediately useful outcomes, including:

  • Understanding how engineered nanoparticles are being produced and used in commerce;
  • Developing recommendations for the safe handling of nanomaterials;
  • Developing nanomaterial sampling and analytical methods for use in the workplace;
  • Evaluating effectiveness of nanomaterial exposure controls that are or could be used in the workplace;
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of respirators and other personal protective equipment to prevent nanomaterial exposures; and
  • Publishing nanomaterial research information and guidance that will assist industry.

Following are some highlights:

Carbon Nanotubes

In the past, NIOSH has done extensive work with different varieties of carbon nanotubes (CNT), including evaluation of worker exposures and exposure control methods in the field, development of practical measurement methods for employers, and development of a recommended workplace exposure limit. By the end of this year, NIOSH is scheduled to complete an a cross-sectional epidemiological study of health effects on worker exposed to carbon nanotubes next year start preparations for a prospective epidemiology study of such workers. During this period NIOSH will continue toxicological testing to understand both the early health indicators of CNT exposure in people, and any chronic health effects of inhaling CNT on the heart and lungs.

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