New Study Emphasizes Need for Nanoparticle Exposure Health Surveillance

Does exposure to nanoparticles pose a health threat to workers? Pending further research to clarify the risks, nanotechnology companies need to consider what steps they will take to protect the health of employees exposed to engineered nanoparticles, according to a study in the May Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

Given the lack of data, lead author Paul A. Schulte, Ph.D., of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and his colleagues suggest a range of possible health surveillance approaches. Depending on the circumstances, no targeted action beyond basic medical and hazard surveillance may be needed, he said. In some settings, it may be appropriate to document the characteristics and handling of nanoparticles and to identify potentially exposed workers. Recording this information in a database would provide a basis for action in case new health hazards came to light.

The next step would be to establish some form of medical monitoring, including either general health monitoring or some form of targeted medical testing--for example, focusing on changes in lung function. However, the study says, in the absence of data on potential health effects, the value of medical monitoring is questionable as the occupational medicine physicians performing the examinations would not know if a specific abnormality is linked to exposure to nanoparticles.

The authors highlighted the need for more research to guide health surveillance approaches in the nanotechnology industry. Basic science studies may be able to identify certain types of nanoparticles with higher or lower toxic potential, while follow-up studies of exposed workers might help to identify emerging health conditions.

Meanwhile, establishing some type of exposure and employee tracking registry might be of value, Schulte and his colleagues suggest. This would provide a structured approach to identifying and maintaining communication with workers exposed to nanoparticles--especially if future health problems come to light. The National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety recently compiled a draft document on medical surveillance of workers exposed to engineered nanomaterials. To access a PDF of this document, visit www.cdc.gov/niosh/review/public/115/PDFs/DRAFTCIBExpEngNano.pdf.

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