Smyth Award Winner Urges Precautionary Approach to Engineered Nanomaterials

​By Kay Bechtold

Baltimore Convention Center, Inner Harbor Baltimore, Md. (May 23, 2016)—While nanotechnology and nanoparticles seem like relatively new topics of discussion for many, Dr. Michael Ellenbecker, ScD, CIH, reminded AIHce attendees Monday afternoon that nanoparticles have existed in our environment for a long time, naturally occurring in places like volcanic ash and forest fires. More recently, nanoparticles are cropping up in an increasing number consumer products, including clothing and skin cream—even sports equipment such as tennis rackets. And, as industrial and occupational hygienists know, workers can be exposed to nanoparticles in some workplaces via substances like asbestos, flour dust, and combustion products such as welding fume and diesel exhaust. These occupational and environmental exposures are well known, said Ellenbecker, the recipient of the 2015 Henry F. Smyth, Jr. Award, but “in some respects, our field is not paying enough attention to the hazards of nanomaterials.”

In a wide-ranging talk titled “The Challenge of Setting Occupational Exposure Limits for Engineered Nanomaterials,” Ellenbecker discussed the uncertain toxicology surrounding engineered nanomaterials and his concerns for protecting people and the environment from these exposures, which he said is especially critical when it comes to carbon nanotubes (CNTs). Workers may be exposed to CNTs in research and development labs and in production settings, where the engineered nanomaterials are incorporated into products from small, advanced memory devices to larger items like automobile bumpers. Ellenbecker urged greater attention for CNTs, given their potential to cause mesothelioma. To date, he said, safety data sheets for CNTs have been “seriously deficient,” and should communicate their potential hazards.

Nano-specific regulations are absent, a fact that is “not likely to change for some time,” Ellenbecker continued. Moving forward, Ellenbecker hopes to see an agreement between countries regarding a standard protocol for evaluating exposures to engineered nanoparticles, including the consistent development of OELs. To show how exposure limits differ between countries, Ellenbecker compared the 2013 proposed NIOSH recommended exposure limit (REL) of 1 μg/m3 of respirable elemental carbon as an 8-hour TWA to a comparable EU value; in his example, the values were separated by a factor of 460,000.

“Industry’s going ahead whether we’re worried or not,” Ellenbecker said. “We cannot wait for occupational exposure limits before taking action. The time to act is now.”

Presented by the Academy of Industrial Hygiene, the Smyth Award honors individuals who have contributed to the public welfare by recognizing and fulfilling the needs of the industrial hygiene profession.

Kay Bechtold is assistant editor of The Synergist. She can be reached at (703) 846-0737.

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the AIHce Daily page.