April 25, 2006
The U.S. government is providing insufficient funding and other resources to understand and manage risks that nanomaterials pose to the health of workers in the rapidly growing nanotechnology industry, according to participants in a workshop hosted by the RAND Corporation.
RAND today issued a report on the October 2005 workshop that brought together nanotechnology and health experts and representatives from industry, insurance firms, labor unions, and occupational health and safety organizations.
Nanotechnology involves the study and manipulation of engineered materials down to the size of a nanometer — one billionth of a meter, or about one one-thousandth the thickness of a human hair. Because of their extremely small size, these nanomaterials can take on unusual physical and chemical properties that allow novel uses, but at the same time can create new health risks.
Although based on substances scientists already understand, nanomaterials essentially are new substances that can have properties that are very different from the bulk forms of the same chemicals. When present as small particles, some of these nanomaterials can penetrate deeply into the lungs, go through the skin, collect in various organs, and even pass through the blood-brain barrier.
According to the RAND report, government resources should focus on assessing the toxicity of nanomaterials, understanding how workers are exposed to such materials, and determining the effectiveness of measures to safeguard the health of workers. The multibillion-dollar investments in nanotechnology being made by private firms and the federal government will continue to be at risk if such steps are not taken, according to workshop participants.
“There are going to be hundreds of new nanotechnology products coming into the market over the next 10 years,” said James Bartis, a RAND senior policy researcher and lead author of the report. “The system cannot handle that. Responsible development means devoting more funding and other resources to safety issues, especially as it applies to worker safety.”
The federal government has directed more than $1 billion annually toward the development of nanotechnology. But less than $10 million — 1 percent of the total — is being spent on research relevant to understanding and managing the risks of occupational exposure to nanomaterials.
Several federal agencies currently have small separate efforts underway dealing with managing the potential risks of nanomaterials in the workplace. These efforts are coordinated under the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which is part of the President's National Science and Technology Council. The RAND report raises questions about the value of these separate efforts and discusses development of a unified federal program to protect workers from nanomaterials.
“Nanotechnology is an emerging area of science that holds broad promise for industry, medicine and many other areas,” Bartis said. “Nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes are already being used in manufacturing and workers are already being exposed. But we don't know what exposure levels are safe and where serious health consequences could occur.”
During the workshop, participants repeatedly expressed concern that not enough funding and staff were being utilized to study the occupational risks of emerging nanomaterials.
“We expected worries from labor and the occupational health experts,” said Eric Landree, a RAND researcher and report co-author. “What surprised us was how strongly industry and the insurance sector supported this view. They are worried about their workers' health and also the potential legal consequences.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, play a lead role in investigating the safety of nanomaterials. Participants in the RAND workshop suggested that other federal agencies — such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy — that are developing nanotechnology should also sponsor health and safety research relevant to the products they are creating.
In addition, federal safety efforts should coordinate closely with industry groups to make sure that findings move rapidly into the workplace, particularly among small and mid-sized companies that may have limited safety resources, according to workshop participants.
The report was prepared by the Safety and Justice Program that is within RAND's Infrastructure, Safety and Environment division. The division's mission is to improve development, operation, use and protection of society's essential built and natural assets; and to enhance the related social assets of safety and security of individuals in transit and in their workplaces and communities. The Safety and Justice Program research addresses many aspects of public safety — including violence, policing, corrections, substance abuse, and public integrity.
Printed copies of “Nanomaterials in the Workplace: Policy and Planning Workshop on Occupational Safety and Health,” (ISBN: 0-8330-3952-0) can be ordered from RAND's Distribution Services (firstname.lastname@example.org or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).