By now, the dangers of working around particulates are pretty widely known. Those who work in industries with combustible dust, wood shavings, coal or a number of other materials all know how serious the effects of those particles can be. Now doctors are worried about new kinds of particles, nanoparticles. Workers who handle these particles might not even be thinking about the health hazards of something that is too small to see.
Especially prevalent in manufacturing, nanoparticles are thousands of times smaller than a piece of hair. Materials like nickel, silver, lead and copper can be reduced down to smaller nanoparticles of themselves but when that happens, their chemical properties change. The consequences of working with these particles is a topic that is just starting to gain ground, as it is not yet really known what they can do to a person. One young chemist who worked with nickel nanoparticle powder did not use protective measures and later developed skin reactions, flushing, throat and nasal irritations. She had a hard time going back to work even in different areas of the building than the lab she had worked in, due to recurring symptoms. She had developed nickel sensitization after working with the materials.
Over 1,600 consumer products like sunscreen, paint, and many kinds of electronics have nanoparticles in them. By 2020, there will be six million factory employees working with these materials and a third of them will be US workers, said Shane Journaey, the CEO and president of Nanotechnology Toxicology Consulting & Training. Though he says it isn’t fair to generalize to all nanoparticles when it comes to labeling them as dangerous, after all most people are faced with these materials every day in the air through pollution. But workers are exposed to them on a much more concentrated scale, and workers who already have lung problems might suffer worse.
Of the thousands of types of these particles there is no serious regulation for them quite yet, just guidelines for two kinds of particles- nanoscale titanium dioxide in inks and sunscreen and single-walled carbon nanotubes in electronics. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) warned that smaller materials are potentially more toxic than larger particles and can move from the lungs to other body systems. Since they are a relatively new development for use in research, products, etc, we are even less sure of the long term consequences. There is just not enough research to say that mandatory precautions are or are not necessary.
It is troubling that this seems to be a booming industry segment that doesn’t show signs of slowing down, and yet so little is known about the potentially adverse effects.