Nanomaterials at work? Learn safe handling rules

Technology moves faster than safety knowledge

Has your hospital recently obtained new imaging equipment and materials that the radiology staff says is the latest thing on the market? If so, your employees might be among those who need to learn about safe handling of nanomaterials.

"Nanotechnology can mean so many things to so many people, but in a lot of ways, it's just a new way of doing the same old science," says Chuck Geraci, PhD, CIH, a scientist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Nanotechnology Research Center in Cincinnati. Geraci is among scientists who contributed to NIOSH's recently released report "Progress Toward Safe Nanotechnology in the Workplace." (Editor's note: The full NIOSH report on nanotechnology safety in the workplace is available at no cost at Geraci says the first thing occupational safety and health managers need to remind themselves and their staff is that little is known about the effects of nanoparticle exposure to human health.

The emerging field of nanotechnology, the science of "building small," holds enormous promise in almost every field, including medicine, cosmetics, information technology, optics, electronics, and materials development. Devices measured on the nanoscale are from 100 to 10,000 times smaller than human cells, and as such can easily enter and pass through human cells. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter; a human hair, by comparison, is about 80,000 nanometers wide.

When materials, even benign ones such as titanium oxide and gold, are engineered to the nanoscale, their properties and reactivities change. They have a large surface area, making them more reactive. "So there are a lot of questions about the safety of products arising from nanotechnology; and NIOSH is focusing on what kind of impact there might be if you have an exposure to materials made on the nanometer scale," says Geraci says.

Scientists have learned, and continue to learn, that when materials are made this small, they have a higher reactivity than larger particles do, he says. "They have a different reactivity than bigger particles, and they have the ability to move around in the body," he says. "So put that together, and it's probably a good idea for occupational health and medicine to understand the human effect this will have in the workplace, because it will happen there first."

While knowledge of what health risks may accompany exposure to nanodevices is limited, the first thing an occupational health nurse needs to know is whether his or her company is already using nanotechnology, says epidemiologist Linda A. McCauley, PhD, FAAN, professor of nursing and associate dean for research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in Philadelphia.

'Keep your radar up'

The technology is growing at such an explosive rate, and in so many different areas, you might be surprised at where nanoparticles are showing up, she says. "Nurses should keep their radar up about new processes, keep their ears open, and stay informed about new technologies being developed," she advises. Nurses also should stay abreast of toxicological testing done on nanomaterials used in their workplaces. (See table for listing of materials or processes in development that use nanomaterials, below.)

Materials or Processes in Development Using Nanotechnology

• Advanced drug delivery systems, including implantable devices that automatically administer drugs and sense drug levels.
• Medical diagnostic tools, such as cancer tagging mechanisms and lab-on-a-chip, real-time diagnostics for physicians.
• Cooling chips or wafers to replace compressors in cars, refrigerators, air conditioners, and multiple other devices.
• Sensors for airborne chemicals or other toxins
• Solar cells, fuel cells, and portable power

Source: National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.

Companies manufacturing nanoparticles will be the first to deal with exposures, but health care is likely to see early exposures as well, predicts Geraci. Imaging technologies already on the market are using nanotechnology. Some nanoparticles are bound into materials that make them less apt to be released to direct exposure, Geraci points out, while others can be released easily. Still others are an unknown quantity when it comes to exposure risk.

"It's very exciting to think about engineering nanoparticles to target drug delivery," Geraci says. A quantum dot particle can be tagged with an antibody that causes it to migrate to a specific receptor site, where it can release anticancer drugs right at the site or destroy a specific cell, rather than flooding the patient's entire body with chemicals or radiation.

In March, scientists with the University at Buffalo's Institute for Lasers, Photonics, and Biophotonics and Roswell Park Cancer Institute, both in Buffalo, NY, announced they have applied for a patent on a drug delivery system that uses nano-engineered crystals to deliver antitumor drugs. Nanotechnology allows the drug to be its own delivery system, the researchers say, which is a breakthrough. Not only does this characteristic allow the drug to target an extremely narrow group of cells, but also once a self-delivering drug is approved, no delivery method need also be approved, they say. This characteristic should get new-generation drugs on the market faster, the researchers add.

That's great for the patient who needs the nanoparticles introduced into his or her body to perform a specific function, Geraci says, but what about the nurse or physician who is exposed to nanoparticles day after day? "Does the person delivering these materials, or performing [scans with nanomaterials] need to take extra precautions? I think you'd have to say yes, at this point," he says.

While NIOSH's experience with manufacturers of nanomaterials has thus far been positive when it comes to educating users about safety, Geraci says he cautions anyone implementing technology that might include exposure to nanoparticles to take precautions and learn all they can. "If there's new training or precautions that should go with [the new technology], we would like to believe hospitals are getting that information and training from the supplier," he explains. But because the technology is so new, manufacturers and sales representatives might not know what all the safety issues are. "We basically tell people to ask lots of questions, like they would with any new product," he adds. "Get information on good handling practices, and make sure it gets into the hands of the people handling the materials."