Worker Illness After Nanomaterial Exposure Examined in First U.S. Case Study on Issue

By Robert Iafolla  

May 13 — A U.S. worker suffered adverse health effects after handling nickel nanoparticles, according to a published case study that appears to be the first of its kind.

A chemist developed throat congestion with postnasal drip, flushing of the face and skin sensitivity to metals within a week of exposure to nickel nanoparticles, according to a case study published May 8 in the online version of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Exposure consisted of periodically weighing out 1 to 2 grams of nickel nanoparticles without using protective measures. The chemist eventually moved to another lab that had no metal chemistry work, and her symptoms improved, the study said.

Despite animal and cell research indicating that exposure to some nanomaterials might cause adverse health effects, there's a dearth of reports on exposed workers getting sick. Available research has supported the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's recommended exposure limit for carbon nanotubes and nanofibers and the International Agency for Research on Cancer's designation of nano-sized titanium dioxide as a possible human carcinogen.

Tip of the Iceberg?

Although individual case studies linking worker exposure and adverse health effects are valuable because they alert researchers to potential problems, they should be treated with caution in terms of drawing causal relationships, said Andrew Maynard, professor and director of the University of Michigan's Risk Science Center.

“They give the ability to start asking questions, but really don't answer any,” Maynard told Bloomberg BNA May 13.

A 2009 case study of seven workers in China whose adverse health effects were blamed on nanoparticle exposure has been widely cited, but any causal link in it is “pretty much entirely speculative,” Maynard said.

The case study of the U.S. chemist's exposure to nickel nanoparticles underscores the need to use protective measures in the absence of conclusive toxicity data, lead study author W. Shane Journeay told Bloomberg BNA May 13.

“This is a modest example, but it shows that in the modern workplace in the United States it can and did happen,” said Journeay, who heads Nanotechnology Toxicology Consulting & Training. “It's really just the tip of the iceberg.”


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The case study is available for purchase at