Tiny Particles Boost Building Materials. Can They Hurt Workers?

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By Elliott T. Dube

Scientists have discovered a lot about how nanomaterials—which are full of particles far narrower than a human hair—can almost magically enhance building products. But the government wants to know more about the potential health effects on construction workers and others.

“Nano” materials, from the Greek word for “dwarf,” can cut down on steel’s rate of corrosion, make glass self-cleaning, or alter a material’s ability to conduct electricity. The addition of nanomaterials can boost thermal insulation, repel water, protect against ultraviolet radiation, or increase scratch resistance.

But the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health and its “good partner” CPWR—the Center for Construction Research & Training—have been busy trying to understand any potential downsides to the industrial use of nanomaterials, Chuck Geraci, NIOSH’s associate director for nanotechnology, told Bloomberg BNA. A lot of nanomaterials are already being used in construction, he noted.

NIOSH to Ask About Awareness, Safety Practices

NIOSH intends to survey companies that work with engineered nanomaterials regarding how they use them and what safety practices they’ve put in place. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention July 17 submitted a related information collection request to the Office of Management and Budget for review.

The survey will gauge respondents’ knowledge of the potential hazards and risks of nanomaterials in a variety of industrial processes, Geraci said. It will also explore whether respondents have the necessary information to put proactive and preventive practices in place, he said.

There have been “very few studies that look at the kind of stuff that our construction workers are exposed to,” Bruce Lippy, CPWR director of safety research, told Bloomberg BNA.

Experts don’t want a repeat of the asbestos crisis. Asbestos was widely used in building materials long after it was found to cause serious health problems when disturbed during later construction activity. As nanomaterials continue to make a “quiet creep” into construction and many other areas of everyday life, safety and health questions remain, Geraci said.

“The good news is that all of us—the toxicologists, the industrial hygienists, the companies involved with the manufacture of these materials—we’re all out in front of this asking many of the same questions now, versus 20 years from now,” he said.

Cell-Breaching Size

Nanomaterials are made up of particles tiny enough for the material’s chemical and physical properties to change.

Certain types of nanoparticles might pose a health hazard because of their size alone. They’re so small that they can enter a person’s bloodstream and central nervous system, where they may potentially cause trouble. For instance, Lippy cited studies linking one specific type of a nanoparticle--a carbon nanotube--to mesothelioma. This is a rare cancer affecting the tissue that lines the chest, abdominal cavities, and most of the organs within them, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“The main concern is inhalation, so if you’re involved in a process where inhalation might be a primary exposure route, you want to control that inhalation exposure,” Geraci said.

NIOSH and CPWR found that high-efficiency particulate respirators offer substantial protection against ultrafine nanoparticles. In addition, Lippy pointed to a recent study he co-wrote that found local exhaust ventilation to be effective in reducing exposure to a certain type of nanoparticle.

But it’s important to emphasize the many differences within the broad class of “engineered nanomaterials,” William Dichtel, a Northwestern University professor of chemistry, told Bloomberg BNA.

“If you talk generally about all carbon nanotubes, it’s hard to make accurate specific statements on when they’re toxic and when they’re not, because they come in different sizes, they can have different things on their surfaces, they can be formulated in different ways,” Dichtel said.

Not Always Noticeable

There aren’t any “hard and fast” U.S. legal requirements to disclose whether a new product or additive includes an engineered nanomaterial, Geraci said. However, “more responsible” companies are divulging such information regardless, he said.Lippy pointed to a CPWR website that inventories commercially available products that include nanomaterials.“One of the things we’ve done is surveyed tradespeople to see if they know that there are nanoparticles in these products, and about half don’t,” Lippy said. The safety data sheets for these products “generally are lacking,” meaning that hazard communication is one area to improve, he said.

The onus should be on manufacturers that use nanomaterials to show what happens to them in the environment, how fast they break down and under what conditions, what their byproducts are, and whether those are toxic, Dichtel said. “I think that we’re well equipped to deal with these questions when that’s the burden of proof.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Elliott T. Dube in Washington at edube@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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