Last updated: May 8, 2017

What Does Nanotechnology Mean?

Nanotechnology refers to materials that are created or manipulated at the nanometer (nm) scale. A nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter.

Nanoparticles typically refer to particles wherein at least one dimension (such as length or width) measures between 1 nm and 100 nm in size. By comparison, a red blood cell is approximately 5,000 nm wide, and a human hair is approximately 60,000 to 120,000 nm wide.

Because the use of nanoparticles in the workplace is a relatively new phenomenon, its occupational health risks are not yet clearly understood. Studies have indicated that a mass of hazardous nanoparticles in the air may be more toxic to humans than an equivalent mass of larger particles. In cases where there may be an occupational health and safety risk from nanoparticle exposure, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) may define a material as a nanomaterial even if the hazardous nanoparticles comprise only one percent of the material’s constituent particles.

Safeopedia Explains Nanotechnology

The use of nanotechnology is a rapidly developing field of study that has applications in many different industries. Nanomaterials are used in a diverse array of products such as medicines, cosmetics, and fuels. Nanomaterials have the greatest potential to enter the body through inhalation into the respiratory system. Therefore, hazard controls such as personal protective equipment may be required in order to avoid exposure to nanomaterials, particularly those made with hazardous substances.

Experimental studies have shown that inhaled nanomaterials have a greater potential than larger particles of the same substance to cause pulmonary inflammation and lung tumors. Studies of workers exposed to aerosols containing nanoscale particles have reported decreases in lung function among other issues. Additionally, dispersion of combustible nanomaterials into the air may pose a greater risk of fire and explosion than dispersion of combustible non-nanomaterials of similar composition.

Because the use of nanomaterials is a relatively immature field, there are few guidelines available for measuring and monitoring workplace exposure. Similarly, there are few exposure limits available for nanomaterials. The OSHA has endorsed the proposed recommended exposure limits (RELs) of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for carbon nanotubes, carbon nanofibers, and titanium dioxide nanoparticles.

There are no specific OSHA standards for nanomaterials; however, the OSHA notes that a nanomaterial may be made from a substance that does have non-nanomaterial safety standards associated with it. In the absence of nanomaterial-specific exposure limits for a substance, the OSHA recommends using the exposure limits for the substance’s non-nanomaterial variant if it exists.


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