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04/10/2018

Nanomaterials: understanding and managing the risks

The rapid development of nanotechnologies has brought with it concerns about the potential hazards to human health. Managing the risks associated with nanomaterials in the workplace is fundamentally the same as for other dangerous substances. However, some important differences need to be taken into account. If you work with nanomaterials, be sure to keep up-to-date with developments.

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What are nanomaterials?

Manufactured nanomaterials are structures on a scale comparable to that of atoms and molecules, invisible to the naked eye. Their small size allows for the development of light-weight materials with high strength, high conductivity or high chemical reactivity. Nanotechnologies are often viewed as one of the critical breakthroughs of the 21st Century.

Nanomaterials are now used in a wide-range of products and sectors. You may have come into contact with them in your daily life as they are used in food packaging, cosmetics, paints and electronics. They are also increasingly used in industries such as aerospace, construction, medical technology and the automotive sector.

Exposure and health effects

Research into nanomaterials is still ongoing, and it is important to stress that not all have toxic effects. Their use needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. However, evidence is mounting that some nanomaterials are more dangerous than first thought and pose greater health risks than the same material in bulk form. Some have even been classified as potentially carcinogenic to humans.

Workplace exposure to dangerous nanomaterials can occur at different stages of the supply chain, meaning that workers may not even be aware of it. The main risk comes from airborne particles, as a result of handling and processing nanomaterials. These particles can either be inhaled or can come into contact with the skin. Such risks can arise in many sectors – from healthcare to maintenance and construction, among others.

The European Commission’s Risk Assessment of Products of Nanotechnologies has found that nanomaterials can affect the lungs, in particular. The cardiovascular system may also be impacted and some substances have been found to reach the liver, kidneys, heart, brain, skeleton and soft tissues.

Managing the risks in the workplace

There are currently no occupational exposure limits in place, so workplaces should adopt the precautionary principle when dealing with these substances. This means reducing exposures to “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” (ALARA). Generally, employers should follow the same approach as for other dangerous substances. Risk assessments, use of the STOP principle and training are recommended, as per usual. Employers should also follow the European Commission’s guidance on the protection of the health and safety of workers from the potential risks related to nanomaterials at work.

However, there are some difficulties that need consideration: risk assessment is more difficult as many properties of nanomaterials are unknown; and methods and devices for measuring exposure levels and emission sources are still being developed. This OSHwiki article explains these difficulties in depth.

You can find out more about nanomaterials by reading EU-OSHA’s infosheet and by visiting EU-OSHA’s dedicated webpage which includes many links to information for employers, workers and occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals. And don’t forget to follow the campaign on our social media channels – FacebookLinkedIn and Twitter (#EUhealthyworkplaces).