Workers Should Expect to Return Home Safely from Work – Nano or Otherwise

From Reuters, August 19, 2009:

Seven young Chinese women suffered permanent lung damage and two of them died after working for months without proper protection in a paint factory using nanoparticles, Chinese researchers reported on Wednesday.

They said the study is the first to document health effects of nanotechnology in humans, although animal studies in the past have shown nanoparticles could damage the lungs of rats.

"These cases arouse concern that long term exposure to nanoparticles without protective measures may be related to serious damage to human lungs," Yuguo Song from the occupational disease and clinical toxicology department at Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing wrote in the European Respiratory Journal.

But a U.S. government expert said the study was more a demonstration of industrial hazards than any evidence that nanoparticles pose more of a risk than other chemicals.

For help in dealing with and understanding this troubling news related to nanotechnology, we asked Matthew Hull, founder of NanoSafe, Inc., a VT KnowledgeWorks member company, for his expertise.

Matthew Hull replied:

I offer four key points:

  1. It's unclear whether the deaths of these young women can be attributed to unique nanoscale hazards or poor working conditions.
  2. At the end of the day, workers should expect to return home safely from any workplace – nano or otherwise.
  3. More conventional workplace hazards cannot be overlooked in nanotech workplaces.
  4. The United States has an excellent system in place to protect workers; US research organizations such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH, have taken a leading role globally in ensuring the safety of nanotech workplaces.

The workplace, whether it's designed for nanomanufacturing or more conventional purposes, should be a safe environment – one that you return home from safely at the end of each workday.  And it's just a terrible tragedy that these individuals lost their lives while working in a facility where they should expect to be kept safe.

What could worsen this situation, however, is that a rush to attribute these individuals' deaths to an engineered nano-culprit could obscure hazards created by underlying occupational health and safety problems.  For example, the article notes that the workplace was poorly ventilated – this is a major problem whether you're working with nanoscale particles or common household cleaners.  The emerging consensus is that this facility simply did not meet even basic safety requirements.

Amidst all of the questions surrounding nanotechnology environmental health and safety, it's easy to forget that nanotech workplaces actually have many conventional hazards, too.  These hazards can stem from basic work practices such as solvent usage or processes requiring high voltage, intense pressures, or elevated temperatures.  There is great interest in identifying unique nanoscale hazards in nanotech workplaces.  It is certainly important to identify such hazards and appropriate protective strategies as quickly as possible,  but in doing so, more conventional hazards should not be overlooked.

Nanomanufacturing is indeed a commercial reality.  Daily, unknown thousands of workers around the world venture into workplaces where they will manufacture metallic nanoparticles, carbon nanotubes, fullerenes, quantum dots, and other such materials.  Ultimately, these materials will end up in sunscreens, cosmetics, photovoltaic devices, next-generation cancer therapeutics, lightweight armor for security personnel, and many other products that help improve the quality of our daily lives.  If as a society we are to enjoy the benefits that these materials offer, then we have a responsibility to make sure that the workplaces where they are produced are safe.

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NanoSafe, Inc. helps nanotechnology organizations navigate emerging environmental health and safety (EHS) issues.  NanoSafe, Inc. offers consulting, testing, and research and development services designed to accommodate a broad range of client needs.  Founded in 2007 by Matthew Hull, NanoSafe is headquartered in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center's VT KnowledgeWorks business acceleration center in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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