Nanotechnology – the Good and the Unknown
Nanotechnology is the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale. This technology has already improved our lives with cleaner and more cost-effective energy sources and more efficient drugs. However, the unique properties exhibited by unbound engineered nanoparticles (UNP) can also potentially cause adverse health effects to workers who may be exposed at work or by handling these materials. While there are some consensus standards established concerning worker exposure and environmental release limits for UNP, they are still under development and no regulations have been issued.
To ensure that work involving UNP occurs in a safe and secure manner that protects workers, the public, and the environment, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories working with UNP must assess worker exposure and emissions to determine if there is a need for additional controls. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) conducts UNP research activities in approximately 60 of its laboratories and needed to comply with this requirement.
Multi-Phase Study Approach
LBNL retained RJ Lee Group to design and conduct a multiphase study to help identify and manage potential health and safety hazards as well as environmental impacts related to UNP. A key component of the study was to help determine worker exposure and environmental release. The project would also support LBNL’s commitment to integrated safety management (ISM) by addressing several core functions, including hazard and risk analysis, establishment of controls, and providing analysis and feedback for continuous improvement.
We began by interviewing LBNL researchers to establish their processes related to UNP. They, in turn, provided us with UNP starting materials which we analyzed to establish source signatures that included morphology and elemental composition. This information was central in our efforts to determine a generalized occupational and environmental risk level. We were then able to develop preliminary control bands that summarized the risks and matched them to a level of control best suited for the process. Afterwards we evaluated, documented and assigned the controls as the optimal method for establishing a worker and environmental monitoring program for UNP based on preliminary exposure assessment and guidance provided in DOE contractor requirements.
An Outcome that Benefits Everyone
The outcome of the control banding process helped define the appropriate level of control for the processes. The control was appropriate for the potential risk and the hazard was successfully mitigated. Our results showed that in all cases, the actual controls being used by LBNL researchers working with UNP met or exceeded the validated control band we established.
RJ Lee Group has established its foundation in research methods, characterization techniques, analytical instrumentation, and process control strategies for UNP. Our experience and our studies expand the knowledge base so others can move forward in this emerging field in a safe manner. The studies completed in collaboration with LBNL build on this foundation and put into practice a methodology that can be used to reduce potential risks to workers and the environment.