Nanohazards

by Jonah Shepp

The first documented case of a nanotechnology-related workplace injury is raising questions about how little we understand the health risks of nanoparticles:

There is no requirement to label nano stuff as nano even though these extraordinarily small things have extraordinary properties which makes them useful and valuable. Nor are there nano-specific regulations about how to safely handle many of them. Within a week of simply measuring out the one or two grams of powder, the chemist’s throat became congested, her nose dripped and face became flushed. Then her skin began to react to her earrings and belt buckle. Her symptoms continued even after she stopped working with the material and moved to another floor. Once outside her workplace the symptoms improved.

“She can never work inside that building again,” said Dr. Shane Journeay, a medical doctor and nanotoxicologist at the University of Toronto. Journeay coauthored the case study with Dr Rose Goldman of the Harvard School of Public Health. It was just published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Andrew Maynard thinks the case study overstates its own significance:

For more than a decade now, there has been a massive global investment in research into the health and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials. Between 2004 and 2013 more than 6,000 academic papers were published on how these materials possibly cause harm, and how it might be averted. And for decades before this, researchers were studying the health impacts of nanoscale particles arising from natural processes, and as by-products of industrial processes. As a result, we now know quite a lot about how nanoscale materials behave in the human body and how to reduce the chances of harm occurring.

We know, for instance, that inhaled or injected nanoparticles can get to places in the body that larger particles cannot go; that the surface of nanoparticles is important in determining how harmful they are; and that nanoparticles are sometimes less harmful than the chemicals they’re made of. We also know that our bodies have evolved over millennia to handle nanoparticles, and that fine particles are integral to many biological and environmental systems. These studies have also indicated how much we don’t know, which is why research in this area remains a priority. And one area we know less about than many would like is: How dangerous is the stuff people are actually exposed to, as opposed to the pure materials that researchers often use in their studies?