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Worker removing carbon nanotubes from a furnace reactor

NIOSH Position Statement on Nanotechnology: Advancing Research on Occupational Health Implications and Applications


The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the federal agency that conducts scientific research in the field of occupational safety and health, and makes recommendations for preventing work-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths. NIOSH is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As a member of the Nanotechnology Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee (NSET) of the National Science and Technology Council Committee on Technology, NIOSH works closely with other federal agencies and private sector organizations to plan, conduct, and facilitate research that will support the responsible development and use of nanotechnology. With the Food and Drug Administration, NIOSH co-chairs the interagency working group on Nanotechnology, Environmental and Health Implications (NEHI).

At the nanoscale level, materials exhibit unique properties that affect their physical, chemical, and biological behavior. Those properties raise questions as to potential health effects that might result from occupational exposures in the manufacture and use of nanomaterials. To answer those questions, scientists need to fill significant gaps in current knowledge.

For example: Do engineered nanomaterials pose unique work-related health risks? 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?

To understand the impact of these exposures on health, and how best to devise appropriate exposure monitoring and control strategies, much research is still needed. Until a clearer picture emerges, the limited evidence available would suggest caution when potential occupational exposures to nanomaterials may occur. Generally, in a workplace where exposures may occur to materials whose potential for health effects is not well understood, well-established principles of occupational safety and health would suggest minimizing exposure through the use of controls. Those controls, in traditional order of preference, include engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment.

NIOSH is pursuing strategic, multidisciplinary research that will help practitioners, with greater certainty, to apply the well-established principles of occupational safety and health to workplace exposures involving nanomaterials. This research builds on the Institute’s experience in defining the characteristics, properties, and effects of ultrafine particles such as welding fume and diesel particulate, which have some features in common with engineered nanomaterials; on NIOSH’s capability of conducting advanced health effects laboratory studies; and on its historic leadership in industrial hygiene policies and practices. The NIOSH program also builds on the Institute’s close partnerships with diverse stakeholders in industry, labor, the government, and academia. These efforts are critical for helping the U.S. remain strong and competitive in the dynamic nanotechnology market. In addition, NIOSH is evaluating the unique benefits that nanotechnology may bring to improving occupational safety and health.

As specific actions in support of occupational health research and nanotechnology, NIOSH:

  • Created an organizational NIOSH Nanotechnology Research Center to coordinate nanotechnology-related research across the Institute and to provide strategic, multi-year direction for that interdisciplinary research.
  • As part of that strategic research, initiated a program under the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA) to characterize the physical and chemical properties of nanoaerosols, study their effects on biological systems, and evaluate whether they pose work-related health risks.
  • Established a new web page to communicate its nanotechnology research program to stakeholders and the general public, and to report ongoing developments and accomplishments in a timely way.
  • Joined with the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation to stimulate excellent extramural research through a $7 million competitive grant announced in late 2004.
  • Partnered with the U.K. Health and Safety Executive to sponsor the first-ever International Symposium on Nanotechnology and Occupational Health in October 2004. NIOSH also will sponsor a Second International Symposium in October 2005.
  • Is developing documentation that will recommend effective, practical ways to control occupational exposures to nanomaterials pending research for more definitive data. At present, the limited evidence available would suggest caution when potential work-related exposures to nanomaterials may occur.

For more information on NIOSH's nanotechnology program, see the web page at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/nanotech/

 
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