By Spyros Damilos, Risk & Safety Engineer

Nanotechnology, a fascinating “hot” research trend finding applications in almost all areas ranging from food industry and pharmaceuticals to energy and biofuels. Defining what nanomaterials are, according to the current definition adopted by European Commission (EC) the term “nanomaterial” describes the materials with particles of one or more external dimensions is in the size range 1 nm – 100 nm. Hence, nanomaterials are not handled as single particles but as a selection – distribution – of particles.

And what makes the materials so unique and so vastly applicable to almost all areas? They present different characteristics from their bulk counterparts depending on size, shape, size distribution, surface morphology, etc. Therefore, nanomaterials are tuned to targeted applications by carefully synthesizing a product of specific morphology and narrow particle size distribution in a well-controlled environment.

Considering the safety aspects of nanoparticle handling, these novel materials present higher toxicity potential than their bulk product due to their smaller size, and subsequently higher surface area, allowing the place for chemical interactions to occur. A hierarchy of controls approach can mitigate both the environmental burden and safety hazards, taking actions in a successive order by Elimination, Substitution, Engineering Controls, Administrative Controls and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Following these guidelines, the proper housekeeping as Administrative Controls, i.e. cleaning work areas and avoiding redispersion of nanomaterial in the air can minimize the nanomaterial exposure to the workers. The appropriate PPE (masks, nitrile gloves, and lab coats) can prevent the penetration of airborne nanomaterials to the lungs and skin and transferring the nanomaterials outside of the designated areas.

On the other hand, think of the other side of the coin; let us consider nanosafety from the product’s point of view: It is not uncommon, during nanoparticle synthesis, nanomaterials and chemical residues to deposit on the PPE (i.e. gloves) leading to cross-contamination between runs of different syntheses of the same or different products. These contaminations can lead to undesirable reactions to take place resulting in broader particle size distribution and limiting the nanomaterial performance. Even worse, they can produce detrimental effects to the user’s health considering pharmaceutical applications. Hence, it could be said that nanomaterials need, also, to be protected by the workers by applying proper administrative controls such as frequent changing of the gloves and placing the nanomaterials in isolated containments.

Several organizations worldwide, such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), are suggesting updated guidelines for nanomaterial handling and occupational exposure limits. Additionally, the European NanoSafety Cluster – where IRES participates via several projects – contributes to the continuous research around the safe and sustainable handling of nanomaterials.

Consequently, emphasizing on both the administrative controls and appropriate PPE, following the nanosafety guidelines would be beneficial not only for the workers and lab personnel to be protected by the airborne nanomaterials during synthesis and handling, but also for the nanomaterials to prevent cross-contamination spoiling the final product. As a result, nanosafety can propel safer-by-design process optimization solutions boosting nanomaterial innovation technologies in both research and industrial level.