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Health and safety concerns associated with the use of nanomaterials warrant precautionary measures, but few state agencies are equipped with the knowledge needed for oversight and regulation of the use nanomaterials, minute particles of matter considerably smaller than the width of a human hair, according to a Southeastern Louisiana University occupational health and safety specialist.
"Nanomaterials are being used in so many products now, including fabrics, sunscreens and cosmetics. We simply don't know their safety or health impacts, and we don't want to wait and see health problems arise, such as those associated with DDT, thalidomide and PCBs, which caused those products to be removed from commercial use," said Ephraim Massawe, assistant professor of occupational safety, health, and environment in the Department of Computer Science and Industrial Technology at Southeastern Louisiana University.
Massawe is exploring the information and technical needs of state government agencies and programs across the country, beginning with an examination of work practices and nano-enhanced technologies used at various Environmental Protection Agency superfund sites. Two grants totaling nearly $110,000 from the Louisiana Board of Regents are supporting his research.
With applications in manufacturing, medicine, environmental remediation and numerous other commercial and non commercial uses, engineered nanoparticles have been hailed as the biggest innovation since the Industrial Revolution, with far-reaching social and economic implications.
"While the potential benefits of nanotechnology-based materials and products are significant, there are concerns about the possible safety, environmental and occupational health risks associated with exposure from the handling of these materials during their production, transportation, use and ultimate disposal," said Massawe.
The field is still new, he said, and regulations and enforcement regarding the production, use and disposal of nanomaterials are in their earliest stages.
"Federal and state authorities need extensive scientific and technical information to support their statutory obligations to oversee and regulate the growing use of nanomaterials for many applications," said Massawe, a specialist in environmental and occupational health. "While there's been some progress in developing conceptual models at the federal level to estimate exposure and health risks to workers and the public, development and creation of a mechanism for coordination of the supporting scientific information for regulatory action at the state level is sorely needed."
Nanomaterials, he said, are being used to clean up hazardous wastes such as persistent organic pollutants. Working with experts from national and international agencies and organizations - including the EPA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the United Nations - he is evaluating the hazardous wastes being treated, chemical and properties of nanomaterials being used and their handling practices and potential emission sources.
Massawe said because of the infancy of nanotechnology science, little is known about how nanomaterials might interact with the human body and the environment. Some initial animal studies, he said, suggest that some nanomaterials could be linked to lung diseases and pregnancy complications.
With the initial $10,000 one-year grant, Massawe assembled focus groups of approximately 100 scientists across the country to assess and determine appropriate questions to be used in surveys of state agencies and programs throughout the nation.
A full-scale survey of state government agencies and programs will follow to establish their scientific information and technical needs for oversight and regulatory purposes. The information collected will serve as a guide to preparing regulatory models that state agencies and programs can use to appropriately regulate production, use and disposal of nanomaterials, while controlling any potential occupational and environmental exposures to the materials.
Mark Hoover, NIOSH occupational exposure assessment coordinator, said, "Dr. Massawe's ground-breaking work will substantially advance the goals of the Nanoinformatics 2020 Roadmap to determine which information is relevant to the nanoscale science and engineering community, and then to develop and implement effective mechanisms for collecting, validating, storing, sharing or communicating, analyzing, modeling, and applying that information to real-life situations, such as emergency spill response activities."
In the more extensive $100,000 grant covering three years, Massawe will focus on the specific application of certain nanomaterials, such as titanium dioxide and other engineered nanoparticles, and how they are being used in clean up operations at EPA Superfund sites.
"Approximately 30 EPA Superfund sites are currently using nanomaterials in remediation operations at experimental or full-scale operations," he explained. "We need to know how they are being handled, to know if they have the potential to become an airborne contaminant substance and possibly a health hazard to workers and the community in a nearby superfund sites."
He said it is also imperative to gather this information because nanomaterials may even get into water systems and become a public health hazard.
"This type of information is what government agencies and programs at all levels need for oversight and regulatory purposes," he explained. "We need to know if these materials present a health hazard to the workers using them and to determine what kinds of personal protective equipment may be needed."
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Southeastern Louisiana University
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SLU 10880, Hammond, LA 70402
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