Occupational Health & Safety

Nano Guidance Slow to Reach Academia: AIHA

Commenting on the 2010 Strategic Plan from the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the association recommends integrating best practices for safely handling nanomaterials in academic graduate research programs.

In comments directed to the National Nanotechnology Initiative's 2010 Strategic Plan, the American Industrial Hygiene Association says adoption by academia of NIOSH's interim guidelines for work on nanomaterials has lagged. The comments were drafted by the AIHA Nanotechnology Working Group and approved by AIHA's board of directors.

The comments say effective nanomaterials safety programs have been used by some laboratories for years, much information exists about controlling the hazards. "In the absence of regulatory drivers, many governmental and industrial research facilities have adopted best practices and the NIOSH interim guidelines into their nanotechnology safety programs. However, adoption of the NIOSH interim guidelines into academic nanomaterial research is lagging," they state.

"Many new chemists and material scientists hired directly from graduate school are unaware of the fundamentals of nanomaterial safety and during their graduate education, many may have unknowingly had prolonged exposure to airborne nanomaterials. In contrast, new scientists hired from graduate level biological and biomedical programs are familiar with the practices and principles of biological safety. Many have spent years working on research projects that incorporate the NIH Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant DNA Molecules and although exposures occur, they are rare.

"One difference between the nanomaterial and biological research communities is the maturity of their respective safety programs. Thirty-five years ago, recombinant DNA (rDNA) was an emergent technology and in a manner similar to nanomaterial research, there was a considerable amount of scientific uncertainty surrounding the potential hazards associated with rDNA research. Interim safety guidelines were developed by the principal scientists involved with rDNA research and consensus safe work practices were adopted. After years of emphasis in academic research, biological safety has become second nature to scientists conducting biological research and development. Also, since the safe practices were developed as guidelines based on the risk information known at the time, rather than embedded regulations, over the years the guidelines have become less restrictive as the risk information related to rDNA work became better characterized.

"The nanomaterial research community and regulatory community both can learn from this success and apply the lessons learned to provide appropriate oversight for an emerging technology. The principles and practices of nanomaterial safety need to be incorporated into graduate research curriculums and research mentors need to lead by example. This will better prepare students to enter the workforce with a skill essential for career advancement, integrating safety into their research projects and daily work practices."

The panel recommends that NNI member agencies include provisions that will lead to the integration of best practices for safely handling nanomaterials in academic graduate research programs. One such initiative is happening now, where California academicians, the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control, and NIOSH have joined forces to develop consensus safety guidelines for academic research involving engineered nanomaterials. The guidelines could become the basis for national safety practices for lab work with engineered nanomaterials, according to the panel.

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