January 19, 2006
On the fringe of nanotech safety
As applications of nanotechnology change the composition and properties of materials construction workers handle every day, questions about worker safety continue to arise.
The draft of a Nanotechnology White Paper prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and released in December approaches the beginning of a regulatory framework to deal with nanotech products both in the workplace and the environment in general.
But, the document poses as many questions as it answers, stating at one point: “Nanomaterials may present risk management issues that are not easily characterized because of the breadth of categories of such substances.”
Noting that nanotechnologies are being developed faster than they are fully understood by regulators, the report suggests that, at least initially, regulators and users of nanotech products should work closely with manufacturers to determine the best practices surrounding health and safety.
Renzo Dalla Via, Manager of Technical Services for the Industrial Accident Prevention Association, notes that nanotech safety is covered in most provinces under general duty clauses that require employers to take “all reasonable precautions” for worker safety, but no specific regulations have yet been established.
“Canada isn’t asleep at the wheel,” says Dalla Via. “Nanotechnology is a difficult issue to put your head around. The dilemma is that nanoparticulates aren’t completely and fully understood. Any study of human toxicology needs some sort of testing protocol and we can’t create a computerized model that tests every assumption.”
A recent study completed at the University of Minnesota reveals that traditional filter masks do a much better job of capturing nanoparticles than believed.
“The filters are actually quite good,” says Professor David Y.H. Pui, who conducted the study. “There was some concern that the high speed of nanoparticles might cause them to bounce off the filter fibres and penetrate through the filter media.
“After extensive evaluation we find that there’s no evidence of that, so we have a better comfort zone in recommending filter masks to protect against nanoparticles.”
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