The International Council on Nanotechnology

Nanoinformatics: Making sense out of nanotechnology information

The broad area of research and development that can be accurately described under the umbrella term "nanotechnology" has undergone a breathtaking expansion since the inauguration of the National Nanotechnology Initiative nearly 10 years ago. With that expansion has come an enormous quantity and variety of data. Data about material properties, nanodevices, nanosystems, environmental, health and safety impacts, etc., continue to accumulate in various databases and information repositories. Understanding how best to organize, collate and increase the utility of these vast and diverse data sets is the goal of a new nanoinformatics project.
SOURCE: nanoinformatics.org

The field of informatics rests at the intersection among data, systems and people, and seeks to transform raw data into information that can then form new knowledge. Nanoinformatics is a name being applied to informatics as it relates to the data, systems and people engaged in nanotechnology research and development. To bring some cohesion to the nanotechnology researchers, informatics experts, government policy makers and other stakeholders potentially affected by nanoinformatics, a collaborative roadmapping workshop is being held this November in the Washington, DC area. More information about the workshop and the participating organizations can be found at Nanoinformatics 2010. The call for papers is still open.

Nano Safety Training Materials are on the Way--OSHA awards Susan Harwood Training Grant to Rice Team

I recently received word about the success of an OSHA Susan Harwood Targeted Topic Grant proposal I led to develop and deliver safety training modules and short courses for small-to-medium sized businesses that handle engineered nanomaterials. Ours was one of only 16 proposals out of a field of 168 submissions to succeed, and it garnered the largest award. It was also the only award to address the topic of nanotechnology. The full list of awardees can be found at the OSHA website.

This award builds on the work ICON has done with the GoodNanoGuide and enables our team to develop a set of training materials ranging from one-hour modules to an eight-hour short course that will equip trainers, employers and workers with the information and resources they need to work safely with nanomaterials. We will pilot these modules and short courses during the grant year at our partner institution, the Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at University of Texas School of Public Health here in Houston and at select professional society meetings. Ultimately, the materials will be web-published for broader distribution.

Many thanks go out to the partners who worked with me to submit a winning proposal, especially:
Sarah Felknor and Amber Mitchell of The Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health
Bruce Lippy of The Lippy Group (co-author of the Nanotechnology and Hazardous Waste Worker Training paper)
Dominick Fazarro of University of Texas-Tyler
Walt Trybula of Texas State University-San Marcos
John Morawetz of the International Chemical Workers Union Center

US Department of Labor's OSHA awards $2.75 million in Susan Harwood Targeted Topic Training Grants for safety and health training

Nanotechnology and Public Health: A free webinar

Here is a long overdue link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Public Health Grand Rounds event “Preventing Adverse Health Effects from Nanotechnology” in which I participated in April. The link takes you to the CDC website where the whole 70-minute webinar can be viewed and downloaded. First a little about the PHGR from the CDC website.
The Public Health Grand Rounds is a monthly series created to further strengthen CDC’s common scientific culture and foster discussion and debate on major public health issues. Each session of the Public Health Grand Rounds will focus on key issues and challenges related to a specific health topic, including cutting-edge scientific evidence and potential impact of different interventions. The sessions will also highlight how CDC is already addressing these challenges and discuss the recommendations for future research and practice.
My invitation to participate came from the nanotechnology folks at NIOSH. Other panelists included Paul Schulte (NIOSH), Mark Hoover (NIOSH), Sally Tinkle (NIH/NIEHS), Vince Castranova (NIOSH) and Bill Hunt (GA Tech). I was asked to speak about global efforts in nanotechnology occupational safety.

I give dozens of talks every year but this was an atypical event for many reasons. First, this was a highly scripted event. My formal remarks and slides (which begin at about 41 minutes in) were scrutinized in advance at least three times and I was strongly encouraged to strip out all extraneous words, transitions and extemporaneous comments. This is not my usual style but was apparently needed to accommodate the diverse crowd and the very tight timeline. If you make it to the end, you'll get to the unscripted Q&A (right after my remarks) which was extensive and enlightening.

Second, not one but two institute directors were present. The PHGR are organized by and for CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden so naturally he was present. Coincidentally, NIH Director Francis S. Collins happened to be in Atlanta to meet with Dr. Frieden on other matters and was also in attendance. Both were very engaged and came up to the podium afterward to continue the conversation. It's not everyday that I get to address two institute directors about my favorite subject.

Finally, it's not uncommon when speaking at a facility to be offered a tour of some sort. However, it's not everyday that the facility tour includes the CDC global emergency response center (think NASA control room for ebola) AND the labs where the anthrax samples from the 2001 terrorist attacks were analyzed. Said tour was led by the head scientist in charge of the anthrax testing. Geek heaven!

Upcoming Webinar on Nano Safety

Interested in learning more about nanotechnology safety? Join me and four colleagues for a webinar hosted by Small Times. (Sorry about the registration fee, which I am assured is needed to pay for the cost of webcast and phone charges. I do not earn a fee for this gig.)

DATE: May 27, 2010
TIME (US): 1:00 PM ET | 12:00 PM CT | 10:00 AM PT

Understanding Nanotechnology Safety
This seminar is of interest to anyone concerned about the potential health hazards of exposure to nanoengineered materials. Workers may be exposed to nanomaterials in many different manufacturing environments, and this seminar will educate them on the real risks. The seminar is also designed to educate employers about what they need to know to ensure worker safety and what types of nano materials are of the most concern. Of significant interest to CEOs/CTOs of technology companies (SMEs), Health and Safety officers of technology companies (SMEs), Government officials (HSE), Toxicology experts, and venture capitalists.

Nano Blogs

This latest compilation of people or groups who blog about nanotechnology just crossed my desk today. The "Forward Thinking Blogs" compilation is grouped into categories based on the publisher. Categories include professionals, women, fans, specialty audiences and others. My Google Alert picked it up because this site is listed, as are the parent ICON site and my personal NanoRisk blog. While I might quibble with some of the categorizations, e.g., a news aggregator is not the same thing as a blog, the list has many of the blogs I read regularly. Noticeably absent are other favorites, including 2020science, nanoclast and TNTlog, to name a few. Nonetheless, this list is a good place to start if you're looking for news and commentary on nanotechnology.

Why Don't Scientists Submit Post-Peer-Review Comments?

When we were setting up the rating system at the Virtual Journal of Nano-EHS there was much hand-wringing about what such a system would do to the credibility of our organization and to academic discourse in general. Many within our advisory group hoped such a system would allow non-experts to get a better sense of the expert community's opinions about the quality of papers in this new field, which has been recognized to be somewhat uneven. But some prominent academics passionately argued that opening up the vast database to user comments would devolve into the kind of petty mudslinging, anonymous attacks and overall lack of civility one can find on other sites where public comments are permitted.

It turns out neither group has seen its hopes or fears realized. In the nearly 9 months since we implemented a system wherein one can rate a paper between 1-5 stars and provide a comment as an option, 34 ratings have been submitted on 33 papers in a database that now includes over 3800 papers. Nineteen of those ratings had comments attached. The ICON database is by no means unique in the under-usage of its rating and commenting functions.

This analysis of the usage of public commenting functions at three major scientific repositories, Public Library of Science (PLoS), BioMed Central (BMC) and BMJ, found that whereas commenting is widespread in newspaper articles, blogs, consumer websites and many other internet sites, scientists don't seem all that interested in commenting on scientific publications. The promised followup post sharing insights into why this might be has not yet been published but commenters to the original analysis shared some of their thoughts. Among the reasons cited were the disconnect between how scientists read papers (saved pdfs) vs. where the comments reside (online), the availability of other social networking tools for indicating approval or disapproval such as FriendFeed and Digg; and even the inherent flaws in rating processes.

In looking through the ratings at our site, I am gratified to see that the people who chose to leave comments for the most part provided brief but specific analyses of the merits or shortcomings of the rated paper. There appears to be no pent-up desire among the nano-EHS community to abuse our forum in inappropriate ways. But is there an unmet need for people to assess nano-EHS papers post-peer-review? If so, what other mechanisms should we consider employing? Feedback is welcome.

[Hat tip to @materialsdave for retweeting @solidstateux on the blog posting that prodded me to write this.]

New GoodNanoGuide Slideshow

Check out the latest SlideShare Presentation on the GoodNanoGuide.

Comments Welcome on Paper Linking Nanoparticles to Worker Deaths in China

Nearly 36 hours after lifting the embargo on its paper, the European Respiratory Journal finally made the paper available at its website. You can link to the abstract via the ICON Virtual Journal or go directly to the ERJ site.

If you go through the VJ, you are welcome to take a moment and submit your thoughts on the quality of the work and its potential impact on the field using our new-ish rating system. Recently added features of the system include the options to identify which papers have been rated most recently and to sort papers in the VJ by their average rating. These tools will become more useful as the number of ratings increase.

Physicians link worker illness to nanoparticle exposure

A research paper released today in the European Respiratory Journal documents for the first time a clinical case in which a team of medical doctors concluded that exposure to nanoparticles was determined to have resulted in harm to workers. [The link is not live but an abstract is available here.] The medical case study documents in clinical detail the cases of seven women who were hospitalized for pulmonary health problems after workplace exposure to ~30 nm nanoparticles contained in or produced by the spraying of a polyacrylic ester paste. An extensive clinical evaluation was undertaken to determine the cause of the workers’ respiratory symptoms, which included shortness of breath, buildup of fluid in the chest cavity (pleural effusion) and around the heart (pericardial effusion) and itching on the face and arms. The clinical findings included nonspecific pulmonary inflammation, pulmonary fibrosis and foreign-body granulomas in the pleura. Ultimately, two of the women died from respiratory failure and others exhibited persistent lung dysfunction 20 months after first being hospitalized. The women’s clinical symptoms are consistent with the outcomes of animal studies in which nanoparticles have been intentionally introduced into the lungs.

The evidence for implicating nanoparticles in the Chinese factory incident is persuasive. The paper contains electron microscopy images of the fluid and lung tissues extracted from the patients that clearly show round nanoparticles or nanoparticle clusters of ~30 nm. The nanoparticles were found in the chest fluid and in cytoplasm and nucleoplasm of the pulmonary epithelial cells. Yes, these were nanoparticles, and yes, some nanoparticles may be able to gain access to parts of the deep lung that are less accessible to larger particles which the body more effectively filters out. Less clear is what the nanoparticles were composed of and whether they were intentionally introduced into the paste or created as a result of the spraying or heating processes. If the latter, then they were what we call “incidental” nanoparticles rather than the intentionally designed “manufactured” nanoparticles.

The exposures, which could not be quantified, took place over the course of between 5-13 months in which the workers operated a machine that converted a polyacrylic ester paste into tiny droplets and sprayed these droplets onto large boards used in the printing and decorating industry. The boards were then heated and dried with the resulting vapor removed via a gas ventilation unit on the machine.

Except the vapor wasn’t ventilated.
According to the article, the gas ventilator had broken 5 months before the onset of symptoms, which, when coupled with the lack of windows and closed door, meant that there was little air circulation and therefore no mechanism to remove the vapor from the workspace. Moreover, the only personal protective equipment available to the workers were cotton gauze masks, which would not be expected to filter out particles as small as ~30 nm. Even if the masks had been protective, they were worn only sporadically as the women appeared to have been uninformed about the possible toxicity of the materials to which they were exposed.
This almost certainly could have been avoided by the application of the “Golden Rule” of workplace safety: when you’re not sure of the hazards, do everything you can to minimize exposure. This is just the kind of industrial accident the GoodNanoGuide is intended to help prevent. For example, the page on liquid nanodispersion spraying controls describes the importance of ventilating the exhaust from the process and employing personal protective equipment as a secondary measure of protection. According to the latest research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the 30-nm particles could have been blocked by an inexpensive, spray-paint respirator sold at your local home improvement store such as these or even these. It is possible to work safely with nanoparticles IF the hazards are recognized and the exposures limited.
What a tragedy.

Here are three important take-aways from this incident.
Workplace safety is of paramount importance wherever hazards are possible. When hazards are unknown or poorly understood, steps must be taken to reduce exposure to the hazard. In this case, this means first employing engineering controls such as ventilation of fumes and then relying on personal protective equipment such as respiratory masks but only as a secondary measure of protection. Such tools exist and could have prevented this tragedy if used correctly.

More investigation is needed to establish the facts surrounding the exposures so that similar incidents can be avoided. The evidence demonstrating that nanoparticles ended up in the workers’ lungs is compelling and persuasive. What is less well established is the type of nanoparticle found in the tissues and cells, the dose received by the workers and the mechanism of injury. It is not clear, for example, whether the nanoparticles themselves caused the injury or whether the combination of nanoparticles and other chemicals in the complex mixture resulted in an antagonistic effect. Regardless of these details, this work is a significant and well-documented clinical case study.

Research on and the development of tools for communication about occupational health issues associated with nanoparticles should be accelerated. Analysis of the ICON Nano-EHS database reveals a critical gap in nanomaterial research of relevance to occupational health as compared with research on nanotechnology environmental, health and safety research in general. So while knowledge about toxicity and hazard grows, understanding how to apply this knowledge in a practical occupational setting still presents a major challenge. While this study highlights a need for fundamental worker protections, better tools are also needed to communicate about potential risk along the supply chain, including during business-to-business transactions, so that consumers of all types have the information they need to handle nanomaterial-containing or nanomaterial-producing products safely. International trade agreements may be a mechanism for better enforcement of worker protections.

For more perspectives from an international group of experts, please click on over to Andrew Maynard’s 2020science blog.

Safety comes first for nanotechnology

A new piece published today at Environmental Expert by attorney Lynn Bergeson, herself a nano environmental expert, describes in some detail the goals and objectives of the GoodNanoGuide, an online resource for sharing information about safe handling of nanoparticles in an occupational setting. Believe me when I say such information is more timely than ever. Many many thanks to Lynn for this unsolicited endorsement of our project. I'm looking forward to the nano-safety skits that Lynn, Shaun Clancy and I are organizing for NanoBusiness 2009. Should be fun. Stay tuned.