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The purpose of this document is to provide the University of Virginia (UVa) community with current information regarding key environmental health and safety implications of nanomaterials and to provide University researchers who work with nanomaterials guidance, in the absence of state or federal regulations, in working with nanoscale materials, so that they may do so in a safe manner. If you currently work with nanoscale materials or plan to work with nanoscale materials in the future see below for institutional interim guidelines.

What is nanotechnology and what are nanomaterials?

Small Times magazine, a business publication covering the fast-emerging nanotechnology and microsystems markets, listed the University of Virginia among the top 10 universities in the country for the strength of its micro- and nanotechnology programs in an annual survey of research universities based on the responses from more than 50 universities on five key categories — research, education, facilities, industrial outreach and commercialization. Nano-related research at UVa is expected to grow as Wilsdorf Hall (Material Science and Engineering and Nanotechnology) acts as a magnet for additional faculty and research staff joining a global interest and surge in nanotechnology research. Despite an official definition of nanotechnology, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (a federal program established to coordinate multiagency efforts), defines nanotechnology as "the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications…. At the nanoscale, the physical, chemical, and biological properties of materials differ in fundamental and valuable ways from the properties of individual atoms and molecules or bulk matter." For understanding the scale of nanomaterials, the diameter of DNA is in the 2.5 nanometer range (a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter). Matter at this scale is not new and in fact, exists in nature as particles in volcanoes, forest fires and viruses. We have also produced nanomaterials unintentionally as a result of combustion and have documented exposure to these "ultrafine particles". The focus of this document, however, is the environmental health and safety implications of working with engineered nanomaterials.

Nanomaterials are already being used in a number of industries, including the electronic, biomedical, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, energy, catalytic and materials industries. Nanomaterials are often combined with other materials today to improve product functionality. Nanotechnology also has the potential for reducing pollution, reducing energy consumption, and cleaning up pollution. However, with the advent of these new materials, unforeseen environmental issues or occupational hazards could arise. Researchers must be extremely careful when working with new materials having unknown properties and toxicity.

What are the human health effects associated with exposure to engineered nanoparticle?

Current scientific evidence indicates that nanoparticles may be more biologically reactive than larger particles of similar chemical composition and thus may pose a greater health risk when inhaled. Some studies have suggested that the skin is also a potential route of exposure for nanoparticles. The potential health risk following exposure to a substance is generally associated with the magnitude and duration of the exposure, the persistence of the material in the body, the inherent toxicity of the material, and the susceptibility or health status of the person. The uncertainties regarding health risks with exposures to nanomaterials arise because of the gaps in knowledge about routes of exposure, and the fate of these materials once they are inside the body. Because of these uncertainties, it is important that interim precautionary measures be taken to minimize exposures. The fate of nanoparticles in the environment and subsequent human exposures is also largely unknown.

Interim Guidelines for the Safe and Environmentally Responsible Laboratory Use of Nanomaterials

Since it is not known how much exposure to nanoparticles is safe, it is important to follow the precautionary principles and use procedures that minimize all routes of exposure (inhalation,skin contact, and ingestion). Currently, material safety data sheets (MSDS) may not provide accurate or helpful information. If you work with or plan to work with nanoscale materials, please contact the University Industrial Hygienist at Environmental Health & Safety at 982-4909. By observing your specific laboratory practices, we can provide you with customized recommendations to minimize environmental and safety threats. Accordingly, the following interim guidelines are provided to aid personnel in conducting safe, environmentally responsible research activities:

Minimizing aerosolization of nanomaterials and best work practices
  • Working with nanomaterials in liquid media during pouring or mixing operations, or where a high degree of agitation is involved, grinding or degrading nanomaterials embedded in a solid matrix, and generating nanoparticles in the gas phase in nonenclosed systems all have the potential to aerosolize nanoparticles.
  • Maintenance work on equipment used to produce or fabricate nanomaterials and the cleaning of dust collection systems used to capture nanoparticles also have the potential to aerosolize particles and should be considered as a potential source of inhalation exposure.
  • Do not eat or drink in areas where nanomaterials are handled or processed. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water when you have completed experimental procedures and before leaving the laboratory.
  • Fires and explosions are a potential safety concern with nanoparticles, so it is extremely important to avoid processes that generate significant quantities of dust.
Engineering controls and personal protective equipment
  • Engineering controls designed for gaseous containment to prevent inhalation exposure during these types of activities, such as biosafety cabinets, chemical fume hoods or glove boxes should be suitable to minimize personal exposure.
  • Respiratory protection can be employed when engineering controls are not feasible during processes that potentially generate aerosolized particles. However, respirators can only be used within the context of the University Respiratory Protection Program (which includes a medical evaluation, fit testing and training). Contact EHS for more information.
  • When working with nanomaterials in liquid media, select gloves that have good chemical resistance to the solution the particles are suspended in. If working with a dry particulate, gloves should also be used. Double gloving may be necessary when extensive skin contact is anticipated.
Emergency spill protocol

In the case of a spill, avoid activities that may further create airborne nanoparticles, such as sweeping. Instead utilize wet methods or a HEPA filtered vacuum. Please contact EHS at 982-4911 if you are uncertain how to proceed.

Disposal of nanomaterials

Before disposing of any nanomaterial or material that may contain nanoparticles, please contact Environmental Health & Safety at 982-4911.

Medical Surveillance

The goal of medical surveillance or health monitoring is to ensure that any health effects are detected early and specific types of health monitoring would arise from a risk assessment. Currently there are no medical surveillance guidelines for working with nanomaterials. If you have a question about the need for health monitoring, please contact Dr. Chris Holstege (434-924-5185) in the Department of Emergency Medicine.

Additional Resources

There are a number of resources available online that provide information on current research on the toxicity of nanomaterials and current best practices when working with nanomaterials. We will continue to review websites and articles of interest to add them to this site for reference. We ask that anyone conducting nano-related research on grounds contact EHS first, so that we may observe laboratory practices and assist personnel in evaluating any processes with potential for exposure. The University also has a work group appointed by the Vice President for Research that is specifically tasked with the mission of examining the environmental health and safety (EHS) implications of existing and emerging nanotechnology research at the University. The group will formulate guidance and recommendations regarding strategies for the responsible EHS-related management of nanotechnology research. Questions or concerns about nanotechnology research at the University may be forwarded to this work group at any time by contacting EHS at 982-4911.

General Safe Practices for Working with Engineered Nanomaterials in Research Laboratories - DHHS/CDC/NIOSH

International Council on Nanotechnology - Up-to-date postings and searchable datable of nanotoxicology research

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) - Nanotechnology Topic Page

The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) - Federal R&D program established to coordinate the multiagency efforts in nanoscale science, engineering, and technology