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«Nanomaterials and workplace health & safety What are the issues for workers? — Aída Maria Ponce Del Castillo Researcher, European Trade Union ...»

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Nanomaterials and

workplace health & safety

What are the issues

for workers?

Aída Maria Ponce Del Castillo

Researcher, European Trade Union Institute

© European Trade Union Institute, 2013

ISBN 978-2-87452-288-8


05 Preface

07 Part 1

Why does it matter to workers?

08 Nanomaterials

11 Nanoproducts and applications in the market

13 Common examples of nanomaterials at the workplace

16 Routes of human exposure to nanoparticles

19 Part 2

Working with nanoparticles 19 How can workers identify nanomaterials?

20 What activities involve working with nanomaterials?

21 What type of health and safety information do workers need to know?

27 Safety control tools at the workplace 29 Part 3 Health surveillance during and after exposure 33 Part 4 Exposure registries as tools for medical surveillance 35 Register who? Doing what? Identifying workers and their activities 39 Conclusion 41 Bibliographical references Preface Nanotechnologies have been variously seen as the great white hope of the 21st century economy. It is an agenda made up of the heady brew of research and knowledge, the dread of what human enhancement may hold, the cold language of the moneymen and the belief that a faster use of what the infinitely small has to offer could deliver environmentally-neutral growth.

Although invisible to the naked eye, nanomaterials are produced and used in real-life workplaces. The industries concerned are not the stuff of sci-fi, and the unquestionable beauty of the images yielded by electron microscopy reflect nothing of a work organization far removed from the clean-room lab environment. Nanomaterials are found in industries where risks abound, preventive measures are often disregarded and workers have little control over their working conditions.

This is largely glossed over by the scientific literature and public debate.

There is nothing new there. In the late 19th century, asbestos was described as the “magic fibre” for being a cheap raw material in plentiful supply and adaptable to many uses. Even early warning signals of a looming health disaster failed to stem its unhindered massive spread throughout the first three quarters of the 20th century.

An indiscriminate use that would cause millions of preventable deaths.

So that nanotechnologies do not become “the new asbestos”, the European Trade Union Institute has been putting out information on them over the years.

This booklet on the working conditions involved in the production and use of nanomaterials is a new addition. There is no scaremongering here, but the sobering observation that nanomaterials are coming onto the market in a widening range of uses at a dizzying pace, but the impact on society is going largely undiscussed.

Occupational health is a specific aspect of that impact. The current data are scant and very patchy. The research that is sounding alarm bells about the toxicity of some nanomaterials should be prompting all stakeholders to implement the precautionary principle without more ado.

Current EU law does not address the specific properties of nanomaterials.

Workers’ and consumers’ health will go unprotected unless EU law is adapted to take into account the specific requirements of these new risk factors. And that means production and marketing rules as much as the Directives on the protection of workers’ health.

This book sets out to do three things: give a better understanding of how nanomaterials impact on workers’ health; identify improvements needed to the legislative framework; and suggest practical ways for trade unions and occupational health professionals to ensure better prevention right now and implement the necessary health surveillance for exposed workers.

–  –  –

Part 1 Why does it matter to workers?

When we talk about “nanotechnologies”, we are really talking about diverse technology platforms applied across many sectors and industries. Nanotechnology is all about manipulating matter at nanometric levels – a nanometre is one billionth part of a metre – enabling materials and structures to be created with properties very different from larger structures with the same composition. Working with such materials on a scale smaller than the human eye can see brings hazards and risks that may not be fully identified and yet there is no consensus on techniques for measuring nanoparticles in the workplace. But health and safety programmes need to be fully developed and implemented.

The market in products incorporating nanotechnologies stood at 200 billion dollars worldwide in 2008 and is constantly expanding as more products and more nano-enabled technologies come onto it – applications promising to help improve access to water, medicine, energy efficiency, and more. All in all, nanotechnology promises huge life-enhancing potential, but it would be a tragedy were the health of workers, who are in the front line, to pay the price for it.

Nanotechnology is a big issue for the European labour market because of its cross-sectoral penetration of traditional and emerging industries. The “nanotech revolution” is driving the emergence of new businesses, spin-off companies and small and medium-sized firms, and impacting on working conditions. Workers have been dealing with nanomaterials in sectors like construction, chemicals, electronics, car making, energy, etc. as they work with new materials, applications, machinery, industrial processes and products. Products are being brought to market with too little scrutiny by the authorities who therefore have little idea of what is being marketed.

Working with nanotechnologies brings unknowns for health and safety into the workplace, so extreme precaution is required in working conditions. The effects on human health and the environment could be disastrous – think only of asbestos and other ultrafine particles in the past. Recent surveys (Conti 2008, INRS 2010b, Engeman

2012) in the United States and France reveal that companies are unsure about how best go about protecting health and safety or what to do in case of contamination. Worryingly, they report that the number of workers potentially exposed to nanoparticles is not known.

If companies are having difficulties getting to grips with health and safety and their programmes do not include specific practices, workers are at even greater risk. Employees have no idea whether they are handling nanomaterials or what if any risks may be involved, and even highly qualified laboratory staff may be uncertain about how safe materials are to handle.

This publication aims to raise awareness among all those involved with nanotechnology at any stage of in manufacture and production, right up to waste disposal. It tries to bring answers to key questions such as: What are nanomaterials? Where can they be found?

How can workers be exposed? What is the essential information they need to know? How important is health surveillance? It also looks at some regulatory action taken by the European Union to provide a framework to the debate.

Nanomaterials The key characteristic of a nanomaterial is that it presents properties that would not be found in the same materials at its normal scale. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines a nanomaterial as a material with any external dimension in the nanoscale or having internal or surface structure in the nanoscale. The nanoscale is the size range from approximately 1 to 100nm, where an nm (nanometre) is a billionth of a metre, or in scientific terms, about 10 to the power of -9.

The ISO classifies nanomaterials into 2 categories: nano-objects and nano-structured materials. Nano-objects are materials with any external dimension in the nanoscale.

A nano-structured material is a material with internal or surface structure in the nanoscale.

Nano-objects are nanoparticles, which have 3 external dimensions at the nanoscale; nanofibres with 2 external dimensions at the nanoscale and nanoplates with only one external dimension at the nanoscale.

The problem with a technical definition is that it cannot be applied to all regulations that deal with nanotechnology. This is why the debate on a regulatory definition of what constitutes a “nanomaterial” has been exercising the minds of scientists, manufacturers, policy makers, Member States and different stakeholders in Europe since 2009.

A crucial part of the process was to have a science-based definition that could be accommodated within the legal system. Where nanotechnology is concerned, reliance on the current scientific data would have been on shifting sands because the science is not yet settled; knowledge is constantly emerging in those areas of nanotechnology that are yet uncharted territory. A regulatory definition cannot just be science-based because other factors are also in play; ethical, political and societal aspects have to be factored in to facilitate governance.

After a series of debates, analyses of scientific opinions submitted by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) and the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR), the European Commission put a draft definition out to public consultation in late 2010. With the scientific opinions and consultation outcomes, the Commission was finally able to issue a recommendation on 18 October 2011 on an EU definition of the term “nanomaterial” to be applied by the European agencies, the Member States and companies operating in the EU.

Figure 1 The nanoscale

–  –  –

Source: Novel Materials in the Environment: The case of Nanotechnology, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, November 2008 The Commission’s development of a benchmark definition for EU policy was mainly prompted by the European Parliament’s call in its Resolution of 24 April 2009, coupled with the inclusion of specific provisions on nanomaterials in different pieces of legislation, like the requirements in the EU Regulation on cosmetic products (EC No. 1223/2009), and the fact that other non-identical definitions of nanomaterials were to be found.

The EC Recommendation on the definition has no regulatory impact “as is”. To have any legislative effect it must be properly implemented in the relevant regulations. So far, it is already referenced in the EU Biocides and Ecolabel Directives. When used in biocides, nanomaterials will need a separate assessment; products containing nanomaterials will have to be clearly labelled, along with the specific risks of making available on the market.

The core terms of the definition are laid down in three different paragraphs. The first paragraph – the most technical part – refers to size rather than mass, reflecting assumptions about the risk of small particles. The definition specifies that the size rather than the mass of a particle is what determines what a nanomaterial is. According to the definition, a nanomaterial is “A natural, incidental or manufactured material containing particles, in an unbound state or as an aggregate or as an agglomerate and where, for 50% or more of the particles in the number size distribution, one or more external dimensions is in the size range 1 nm - 100 nm.” It is the particle itself that is important: it may be unbound, aggregates or agglomerates, but 50% or more of the particles must be in the size distribution between 1 and 100 nm for the primary article to meet the definition. The 50% value was chosen over the 1% recommended by the SCENIHR scientists because a lower value would have brought too many materials within the scope of the definition. The definition does not mean that all nanomaterials will be subject to the specific requirements – incidental nanoparticles1, like those in volcano ashes or produced during milk homogenization, will escape it. And it does not supporting definitions of other term like “particles”, “agglomerates” and “aggregates”.

The second part of the recommendation is an exception that allows for a lower percentage. It says that where there are specific environmental, health, safety or competitiveness concerns, paragraph 1 may not apply and the number size can be between 1 and 50 percent.

The third and final part specifically says that fullerenes, graphene flakes and single wall carbon nanotubes are considered as nanomaterials, whether or not they are unbound or agglomerates.

The Commission set out to create a uniform definition, but the substantive debate was challenging in that different exposure risks had to be taken into account. Now that the definition has been published, the task ahead will be to update the accompanying Questions and Answers document.

Assuming that the Commission’s definition will be reviewed in 2014, care must be taken in using the Recommendation and appropriate guidance needs developing for its full implementation in REACH and other regulations. Even though REACH – the comprehensive regulation on chemical substances – was not designed to cover nanomaterials, the European Commission says that in principle it also applies to nanomaterials, notwithstanding that some gaps are currently under discussion, like the threshold for registration of chemical substances manufactured or imported in quantities less than 1 tonne per year, to which REACH does not apply.

Figure 2 Counting nanoparticles

–  –  –

Source: Author 1. “Incidental” nanoparticles are created during processes such as combustion and food milling, churning, freezing, and homogenization. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3060016/ Nanoproducts and applications in the market Materials at the nanoscale present completely different properties to those at the macroscale. This will undoubtedly put them at the centre of the next industrial revolution. Incidental nanomaterials exist in nature – sea breeze and volcanic ash are just two of many.

This chapter will look at nanomaterials that are manufactured – generally in dry and soluble forms – to have specific properties or a specific composition for commercial purposes.

–  –  –

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