Frequently Asked Questions
- What is nanotechnology? Where did it come from, and how long has it been around?
- What kinds of nanomaterials (nanoproducts) are in production or use in the U.S.?
- Why is NIOSH conducting research on nanotechnology and occupational health?
- What knowledge or expertise does NIOSH bring to this research?
- How does the NIOSH research program relate to other government efforts associated with research and development in nanotechnology?
- How many workers are potentially exposed to nanoparticles?
- How may workers potentially be exposed to nanoparticles?
- What effects do nanomaterials have on workers’ health?
- How should workplace exposures to nanomaterials be measured?
- Should workplace exposures to nanomaterials be controlled, and if so, how?
- What are potential applications of nanotechnology in occupational safety and health?
- Where can I find more information about NIOSH’s research pertaining to occupational health and nanotechnology? Where can I find additional information about the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)?
Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of matter at nanometer length (one-billionth of a meter) scales to produce new materials, structures and devices. The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) defines a technology as nanotechnology only if it involves all of the following:
- Research and technology development involving structures with at least one dimension in approximately the 1-100 nanometer range, frequently with atomic/molecular precision.
- Creating and using structures, devices and systems that have novel properties and functions because of their nanometer scale dimensions.
- Ability to control or manipulate on the atomic scale.
Nanostructured materials do not represent a new phenomenon. For example, the red and yellow hues in stained glass dating from medieval times result from the presence of nanometer-diameter gold and silver particles. However, the ability to probe, manipulate, understand and engineer matter at atomic scales has only recently come within our grasp. In a 1959 lecture titled “There’s plenty of room at the bottom”, the Nobel laureate Professor Richard P. Feynman introduced the idea of a new and exciting field of research based on manipulating matter at the atomic level. At the time, Professor Feynman’s predictions were based on theoretical speculation. However, developments such as the invention of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope in 1981 have since made nanoscale science a reality. Nanotechnology is now a rapidly growing field of research and development that is cutting across many traditional boundaries.
An increasing number of products and materials are becoming commercially available. These include nanoscale powders, solutions and suspensions of nanoscale materials as well as composite materials and devices having a nanostructure. Nanoscale titanium dioxide for instance is finding uses in cosmetics, sun block creams and self-cleaning windows, and nanoscale silica is being used as a filler in a range of products, including dental fillings. Recently, a number of new or “improved” consumer products using nanotechnology have entered the market (such as stain and wrinkle-free fabrics incorporating "nanowhiskers" and longer-lasting tennis balls using butyl-rubber/nanoclay composites). Nano-coatings and nano-composites are being used in a wide range of consumer products from bicycles to automobiles.
NIOSH is conducting research on nanotechnology and occupational health within the scope of its mission to help answer questions that are critical for supporting the responsible development of nanotechnology and for advancing U.S. leadership in the competitive global market. These questions include: Are workers exposed to nanomaterials in the manufacture and use of nanomaterials, and if so what are the characteristics and levels of exposures? Are there potential adverse health effects of working with nanomaterials? What work practices, personal protective equipment, and engineering controls are available, and how effective are they for controlling exposures to nanomaterials? NIOSH is addressing these questions through a program of multi-disciplinary research, communication, and partnership with other agencies, organizations, and stakeholders.
NIOSH’s role stems from its mission as the Federal institute that conducts research and makes recommendations in occupational safety and health. For more than 30 years, NIOSH has led research to define and address occupational health concerns related to emerging technologies and workplace practices. To its research on nanotechnology and occupational health, NIOSH brings:
- Experience in defining the characteristics and properties of ultrafine particles such as welding fume and diesel particulate, which have some features in common with engineered nanomaterials.
- Capability of conducting advanced health effects laboratory studies.
- Historic leadership in industrial hygiene policies and practices.
- Close research partnerships with diverse stakeholders in industry, labor, the government, and academia.
How does the NIOSH research program relate to other government efforts associated with research and development in nanotechnology?
NIOSH is working in partnership with other government agencies primarily through participation in the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, a federal R&D program established to coordinate the multiagency efforts in nanoscale science, engineering, and technology. The NNI is managed within the framework of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). NIOSH is a member of the NTSC’s Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee (NSET). Within that subcommittee, it co-chairs, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the interagency Nanotechnology, Environmental and Health Implications (NEHI) Working Group. NIOSH’s collaboration with other agencies includes a joint grant solicitation with the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation to fund new research on questions of environmental and human health effects of manufactured nanomaterials.
NIOSH is unaware of any comprehensive statistics on the number of people in the U.S. employed in all occupations or industries in which they might be exposed to engineered, nano-diameter particles in the production or use of nanomaterials. Perhaps because of the relative newness of the nanotechnology industry, there appear to be no current, comprehensive data from official survey sources, such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The magazine SMALL TIMES has reported a partial figure. In a 2004 survey,
it estimated that 24,388 people are employed in companies engaged only
in nanotechnology. This total includes all people employed in those companies,
not simply those engaged in research or manufacturing jobs that may involve
exposure to nano-diameter, engineered particles. The survey did not include
the number of people who may work in companies that engage in nanotechnology
only as part of a larger corporate portfolio. The survey is expected to
be updated this year, retaining its focus on employment in companies that
are engaged only in nanotechnology.
Nanomaterials that can be inhaled, ingested or that can penetrate the skin will likely raise questions of potential health effects. Processes that lead to airborne nanometer-diameter particles, respirable nanostructured particles (typically smaller than 4 micrometers) and respirable droplets of nanomaterial suspensions, solutions and slurries are of particular concern for potential inhalation exposures.
No conclusive data on engineered nanoparticles exist for answering that question, yet. Workers within nanotechnology-related industries have the potential to be exposed to uniquely engineered materials with novel sizes, shapes and physical and chemical properties, at levels far exceeding ambient concentrations. However, to understand the impact of these occupational exposures on workers’ health, much research is still needed. NIOSH is pursuing advanced studies to answer key questions; for example: In what ways might employees be exposed to nanomaterials in manufacture and use? In what ways might nanomaterials enter the body during those exposures? Once in the body, where would the nanomaterials travel, and how would they interact physiologically and chemically with the body’s systems? Will those interactions be harmless, or could they cause acute or chronic adverse effects? What are appropriate methods for measuring and controlling exposures to nanometer-diameter particles and nanomaterials in the workplace?
NIOSH researchers and their colleagues are pursuing research to address that question, which arises from the fact that nanomaterials differ in significant ways from traditional materials for which established measurement procedures and equipment exist. One factor involves instrumentation: in general, available devices and methods are not designed to take and analyze samples at the nano-scale. Another factor involves uncertainties regarding the appropriate parameters for sampling and analysis. Procedures for measuring traditional materials are based on the particles’ mass and bulk chemistry as characteristics that most determine whether the material is likely to have adverse effects. For nanomaterials, current research suggests that mass and bulk chemistry may be less important than particle size, surface area and surface chemistry (or activity) as the most relevant parameters for measurements. NIOSH is evaluating potential methods and technologies for measuring exposures to airborne nanomaterials, such as instruments that measure particle number and surface area.
Identifying appropriate control methods depends on knowing the characteristics of the nanomaterial, how exposures to nanomaterials can occur in the workplace, what are the potential effects of workplace exposure to a given material, and how can exposures to nanomaterials be measured accurately and reliably. By advancing research in these areas, NIOSH and its partners hope to generate new data for answering questions about controls.
Nanotechnology holds great promise for society, and occupational safety and health is no exception. Engineered nanomaterials may support the development of high performance filter media, respirators, coatings in non-soiling/dust-repellant/self-cleaning clothes, fillers for noise absorption materials, fire retardants, protective screens for prevention of roof falls and curtains for ventilation control in mines, catalysts for emissions reduction, and clean-up of pollutants and hazardous substances. Nanotechnology-based sensors and communication devices may help in handling emergencies and in empowering workers to take preventative steps to reduce their exposure to risk of injury. The smallness of their size coupled with wireless technology may facilitate development of wearable sensors and systems for real time occupational safety and health management. Nanotechnology-based fuel cells, lab-on-chip analyzers and opto-electronic devices all have the potential to be useful in the safe, healthy and efficient design of work itself.
Where can I find more information about NIOSH’s research pertaining to occupational health and nanotechnology? Where can I find additional information about the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)?
More information on NIOSH’s nanotechnology research program can be found at www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/nanotech/ . This is designed to be a robust source of information on NIOSH’s research program, with new information added as it becomes available. More information on the NNI is available at www.nano.gov .
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