Nanotech Safety

November 13, 2006

 

Bren, UCSB Researchers Say More Information Needed
to Design Safety Standards for Nanotechnology

 

Santa Barbara, Calif. – Bren School professors and master’s students had key roles on an interdisciplinary UCSB research team that produced the first publicly available international report on workplace environmental health and safety (EHS) practices and product stewardship practices in the nanotechnology industry. The report – the second of two parts – suggests that safeguards in the burgeoning industry may be insufficient, largely because of a critical lack of information and understanding about the potential or known risks of the particles.

Released by the International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON), which funded the study, the report provides the findings of a survey created and conducted by the UCSB team as the first-ever attempt to catalog global EHS practices in the nanomaterials industry. ICON is a coalition of academic, industrial, governmental, and non-governmental organizations administered by the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University.

The report, titled "A Survey of Current Practices in the Nanotechnology Workplace," suggests that while companies and laboratories around the world recognize that special risks are associated with nanomaterials, actual reported EHS practices in the industry “do not significantly depart from conventional safety practices for handling chemicals.” (Nanomaterials are defined as engineered materials having dimensions of less than 100 nanometers, a nanometer being one-billionth of a meter. Such materials are currently used in the manufacture of cosmetics, clothing, sports equipment, coatings, and electronics.)

Further, while surveyed organizations generally reported recommending disposal of nano-products as hazardous waste, they did not frequently report conveying that information to their customers. The findings suggested that a lack of information was the primary impediment to improving health and safety management of nanomaterials.

“This is an important study because it reinforces the perspective, generally, that there needs to be more information regarding the toxicology of new nanomaterials and how they should be handled in the contexts of industry, consumers and the environment,” said Patricia Holden, Bren associate professor of environmental microbiology. Holden was the group’s Principal Investigator (PI) and co-advisor to the team of Bren master’s students for whom the work served as their group project, the Bren School equivalent of a master’s thesis.

Co-PIs were Bren associate professor of corporate environmental management Magali Delmas, who was also co-advisor of the Bren students; research anthropologist and co-director of UCSB’s NSF Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS-UCSB) Barbara Herr Harthorn; and UCSB professor of sociology and global and international studies Richard Appelbaum. Bren Master of Environmental Science & Management (MESM) students Gina Gerritzen, Leia Huang, Keith Killpack, and Maria Mircheva, and UCSB Ph.D. student Joe Conti (Sociology) were researchers.

On Nov. 13, members of the research group assembled at CNS-UCSB for a webcast/news conference produced in cooperation with ICON. During the 90-minute webcast, Harthorn presented the findings and the group took questions from some 30 reporters who particpated in the conference.

The Phase I report (released in late October) of the two-part project examined ongoing and currently planned efforts to delineate EHS practices and life-cycle approaches worldwide in the nanotechnology workplace. The Phase II report covers the development, methodology and findings of the survey the need for which was demonstrated in Phase I. The student researchers spent much of spring and summer 2006 conducting interviews by phone and e-mail with organizations in North America, the European Union, Asia and Australia.

“It was a great experience to work with colleagues and students from both the natural and social sciences,” said Delmas. “It’s a perfect example of the kind of interdisciplinary work we do here at the Bren School and at UCSB. Such collaboration allows us to address cutting- edge questions with the right combination of expertise.”

The major Phase II finding, based on self-reported responses from 64 voluntarily participating businesses and labs (out of 337 that were contacted, and an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 organizations working with nanomaterials worldwide) was that, while nano-specific EHS programs and training were reported, actual reported practices did not significantly differ from conventional safety practices for handling chemicals. Further, organizations in the industry claim to be actively seeking additional information on how best to handle nanomaterials. The current “lack of information and guidance regarding nanomaterials toxicology, hazards and safe handling methods,” says the report, “are the main reported impediments to further developing and implementing nano-specific health, safety and product stewardship programs.”

Particles at the nanoscale take on novel physical properties, making their potential dangers to humans and the environment mostly unknown, says Holden. Lacking a consolidated understanding of current health, environmental, and stewardship practices in nanomaterials manufacturing, ICON issued a request for proposals to create and conduct a survey to catalog current industry practices. The UCSB proposal was chosen, and the project resulted.

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About the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management: The Bren School is a unique interdisciplinary professional graduate program focused on solving environmental problems through the integration of science, management, law, economics, and policy. The school provides rigorous training for master’s and Ph.D. students and plays a leading role in researching environmental issues. The program is unique in the UC system and is the only one of its kind in the western United States.

Find a copy of the ICON report on the ICON website at http://icon.rice.edu.

To arrange an interview with Dr. Holden, Dr. Delmas or other Bren School researchers, please contact Bren media liaison James Badham by phone at (805) 893-5049, or by e-mail at james@bren.ucsb.edu.

For interviews with Dr. Harthorn or the other CNS members of the research team, contact Dr. Harthorn directly at harthorn@isber.ucsb.edu, or by phone at (805) 893-3350.

To visit the Bren School nanotechnology group project, go to http://fiesta.bren.ucsb.edu/~nanotech/researcher.htm