Nanotech Raises Worker-Safety Questions

Dietary supplements are among the products using nanotechnology.
Dietary supplements are among the products using nanotechnology. (By David Owen Hawxhurst -- Woodrow Wilson International Center)
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 8, 2006

RENO, Nev. -- To tour the gleaming offices of Altair Nanotechnologies Inc. is to see why the U.S. Commerce Department calls nanotech "the next industrial revolution" -- a revolution not of smelters and smokestacks but of precision-engineered carbon "buckyballs" one-ten-thousandth the size of the head of a pin and microscopic nanospheres that can pack the power of a car battery in a napkin-thin wafer. What could be more 21st-century?

But pass through heavy doors into the heart of Altair's manufacturing area and the future looks a lot like the past.

Men in grease-stained blue coats navigate catwalks atop hulking, two-story-tall spray-drying machines. Forklift drivers steer 55-gallon drums of chemicals from one area to another. Other workers attend to noisy milling operations, their face masks gathering a thin film of pale dust as they empty buckets of freshly made powders to be used in nanotech batteries and premium paints.

As the U.S. economy strides into the age of nanotechnology, thousands of workers like these are participants in a seat-of-the-pants occupational health experiment.

No state or federal worker-protection rules address the specific risks of nanomaterials, even though many laboratory and animal studies have shown that nano-size particles -- those on the order of a millionth of a millimeter -- spur peculiar biological reactions and can be far more toxic than larger granules of the same chemicals.

Regulators say they need more data before setting standards. But of the $1.2 billion the government has proposed spending on its National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2007 -- a research funding program to help jump-start the promising sector -- only about two-tenths of 1 percent is earmarked to study workplace safety issues.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does have a general "nuisance standard" for airborne particles, "but that standard is not going to be very useful for nanomaterials," said John M. Balbus, a physician and health program director for Environmental Defense, a watchdog group. Just three weeks in a workplace with that level of engineered nanospecks would be equivalent to the exposure that caused animals to choke to death in experiments in 2004, Balbus said.

Then again, government scientists admit, the science is so young that they do not even know what they should be focusing on: Is it the number of particles a person is exposed to that matters most? Is it their chemical composition or size? Or, as recent research suggests, is it the total surface area of each intricately etched nanoparticle -- a complex spatial dimension that instruments can barely measure?

"We have very little data to make any kind of informed societal decisions about how to deal with nanomaterials in the workplace," said Paul Schulte, the director of education and information at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

That is why a swarm of NIOSH scientists recently spent the better part of a week at Altair with nearly a ton of equipment for measuring worker exposures to nanoparticles.

Altair was not in trouble -- far from it. The inspection was at the invitation of the company's chief executive, Alan Gotcher. Unlike many of his corporate peers, who have kept their heads down amid a flurry of questions about what, exactly, they are making and how they are assuring worker safety, Gotcher thinks the industry should share what it knows about nanotech manufacturing methods and safety strategies.

"We need to be responsible and we have to be proactive, and if we've got products that have problems, we've got to do something about it," Gotcher said. "On the flip side, we should not let fear of the unknown cause an overreaction."

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