NIOSH Releases Nanomaterial Safety Research Plans
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the US federal agency responsible for research and recommended practices to prevent work-related injuries and illness. More than a decade ago, NIOSH recognized that future nanomaterial workers — more than consumers or the general public — faced the greatest potential to be exposed to engineered nanomaterials and any risks. In response, NIOSH organized a research center drawing on the expertise of NIOSH scientists from a wide range of disciplines from across the country to prioritize and carry out an evolving program of research necessary to assess the potential hazard of particular nanomaterials in labs and commerce, and to give employers appropriate guidance to handle them safely.
NIOSH’s Nanotechnology Research Center recently released its 2014-2016 research and guidance strategic development plan, detailing work under way and to be completed in the next three years. This work is important. While NIOSH’s recommendations are not legally binding, its research and methods are generally well respected and its recommendations are influential. Indeed, its 2005 draft publication, “Safe Nanotechnology: An Information Exchange with NIOSH” and subsequent updates, provide the framework and foundation for the leading international voluntary standards on safe handling of nanomaterials in the workplace, including standards from ASTM International, the International Standards Organization (ISO) and the British Standards Institute. While firms working with nanomaterials are not obligated to follow NIOSH guidance or methods, these recommendations will be viewed by many as state-of-the-art, and company leaders may later be asked by employees or investors to explain why they chose a different path.
NIOSH’s 2014 research and guidance plan updates a 2009 version. Current plans call for a great deal of basic research, but unlike many such programs, NIOSH’s plans are directed at very practical and immediately useful outcomes, including:
- Understanding how engineered nanoparticles are being produced and used in commerce;
- Developing recommendations for the safe handling of nanomaterials;
- Developing nanomaterial sampling and analytical methods for use in the workplace;
- Evaluating effectiveness of nanomaterial exposure controls that are or could be used in the workplace;
- Evaluating the effectiveness of respirators and other personal protective equipment to prevent nanomaterial exposures; and
- Publishing nanomaterial research information and guidance that will assist industry.
Following are some highlights:
In the past, NIOSH has done extensive work with different varieties of carbon nanotubes (CNT), including evaluation of worker exposures and exposure control methods in the field, development of practical measurement methods for employers, and development of a recommended workplace exposure limit. By the end of this year, NIOSH is scheduled to complete an a cross-sectional epidemiological study of health effects on worker exposed to carbon nanotubes next year start preparations for a prospective epidemiology study of such workers. During this period NIOSH will continue toxicological testing to understand both the early health indicators of CNT exposure in people, and any chronic health effects of inhaling CNT on the heart and lungs.
Nanosilver, Nanocellulose, Graphene, and Nanoclays
NIOSH’s early focus was on CNTs and nanoscale titanium dioxide. NIOSH is expanding the target of it health and exposure research to include other relatively high volume commercial nanomaterials, including nanoscale silver, graphene, and nanocellulose. NIOSH will complete a field assessment of current workplace exposure to these materials, evaluate the pulmonary and systemic effects of exposure, and by 2016, it expects to issue risk-based, recommended occupational exposure limits for these materials and perhaps others (e.g., carbon black, nanoscale silica, nanoceramics, nanoclays, and nanoscale catalysts). Looking ahead, NIOSH will complete market surveillance to identity the next generation of nanomaterials entering widespread commercial use to prioritize for future testing and recommendations.
New Guides for Business
NIOSH published a safe handling guide for nanomaterials in laboratories in 2012, and earlier this year published a compendium of effective ultrafine particle control technologies used in other industries that should be effective with nanomaterials. Later this year, NIOSH will issue a nanomaterial handling guide targeted specifically at small businesses that use or manufacture nanomaterials. Next year, NIOSH plans to update its seminal general guidance on safe handling of nanomaterials in the workplace, publish updated nanomaterial exposure measurement methods, publish the results of its field assessments of nanomaterial exposure in particular industries, and update its 2009 guidance for nanomaterial worker medical surveillance.
Practical Research to See What Works
NIOSH is doing other practical research useful to nanomaterial workers and their employers. This includes assessing the effectiveness of commercially available engineering controls (e.g., hoods) in laboratories; developing standardized test methods for airborne nanomaterials; evaluating the effectiveness of different kinds of protective clothing as a barrier to nanoscale particles; evaluating the fire, explosion an electromagnetic hazard of engineered nanomaterials and the sufficiency of existing DOT and NFPA guidance for managing hazardous dusts; and evaluating the effectiveness of respirators with nanomaterials in occupational settings.
Companies working with nanomaterials and their investors recognize the importance of managing the environmental, safety and health aspects of these materials to the safety of their workers and customers, market acceptance of their products, and the long term successes of their businesses. The current challenge is determining what protective measures are effective and appropriate in particular circumstances in the absence of consensus on hazards, standard exposure measurement test methods, or authoritative occupational exposure standards. As research on these questions continues – at NIOSH and at hundreds of other private and public institutions around the world – NIOSH’s program of work is producing a great deal of practical information and guidance that employers can use today based on what is already known. At the same time, results of studies of particular individual nanomaterials may have favorable or unfavorable effects on market acceptance. Companies working with materials under study need to be aware of that work as it emerges and to be ready to assess its relevance to their operations.
James G. Votaw is a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP and regularly advises companies making and using engineered nanomaterials in commercial and research settings. His practice focuses on environmental, health and safety law, with particular emphasis on conventional, nanoscale, industrial, pesticidal and specialty chemical product regulation, policy and approval matters; compliance counseling and auditing, enforcement defense, and associated business counseling and litigation issues. Mr. Votaw can be reached at (202) 585-6610 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is part of a series of articles by law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP’s Energy, Environment & Natural Resources practice. Earlier columns in the fourth edition of this series discussed the Obama Administration’s Plans to Reduce Methane Emissions, US Ban on Oil Exports and Environmental Risks in Buying Contaminated Properties.
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