The International Council on Nanotechnology

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.

Advancing Eco-Responsible Nanotechnology

A new synopsis of findings from the ICON workshop on Eco-Responsible Design and Disposal of Engineered Nanomaterials has been published in ACS Nano (subscription required). First a little history: ICON has had since its inception in 2004 an interest in identifying and closing critical knowledge gaps that currently limit our ability to predict the impacts of engineered nanomaterials on living systems. Toward this end, we have convened a series of workshops to identify and highlight these gaps, with the aim of focusing governmental and other resources and attention on the most pressing issues. The first two workshops (full report here) addressed impacts on living organisms; the third held on March 9-10, 2009 near Rice University addressed the environment explicitly.

Convened with support from the UK Science and Innovation Network (our friends at the British Consulate-General Houston), the National Science Foundation, the TX-UK Collaborative and Nanonet, the environmental workshop attracted 57 experts from the United States, United Kingdom, Europe and Australia. The first theme covered what by now is fairly standard fodder for a nanoEHS workshop:
  • Theme 1: Eco-Responsible Design—Engineering Environmentally Benign Nanoparticles
    • Metrology, Quantification and Tracing NPs in the Atmospheric, Terrestrial and Aquatic Environment
    • Structure-Activity Relationships for Nanoparticles in the Environment
    • Toward Predicting Multimedia Fate and Transport
    • Computational Modeling of Nanoparticle Modifications in the Environment
The second theme on disposal has seen far less discussion and analysis and it was here that I felt significant new ground was broken.
  • Theme 2: Eco-Responsible Disposal—Waste Management of Nanomaterials throughout Lifecycle
    • Responsible Minimization and Disposal of Nanomaterial Production Wastes
    • Release and Exposure Scenarios/Source Dynamics
    • Impact of Nanoparticles on Ennvironmental Protection Infrastructure
    • Information Needs for Waste Disposal Companies and Recyclers
Authored by workshop planning team members Pedro Alvarez and Vicki Colvin (Rice), Jamie Lead (University of Birmingham) and Vicki Stone (Edinburgh Napier University), the ACS Nano Focus reiterates some of the major themes from the first workshop report, which just serves to highlight how little has changed in the two years since its publication.

Here's an excerpt from the abstract:
Critical research needs to advance this urgent priority include (1) structure-activity relationships to predict functional stability and chemistry of MNMs in the environment and to discern properties that increase their bioavailability, bioaccumulation, and toxicity; (2) standardized protocols to assess MNM bioavailability, trophic transfer, and sublethal effects; and (3) validated multiphase fate and transport models that consider various release scenarios and predict the form and concentration of MNMs at the point of exposure. These efforts would greatly benefit from the development of robust analytical techniques to characterize and to track MNMs in the environment and to validate models and from shared reference MNM libraries.
Sound familiar? Yeah, I know. Stay tuned for the full report, which, like all ICON products will be freely available at our website.

Too much data, too little context

Those of us who have been working in nanotechnology since the beginning of the decade have witnessed the remarkable growth and evolution of research into engineered nanomaterials' environmental, health and safety impacts. In 2001, there were virtually no papers addressing the impacts of intentionally manufactured nanomaterials.

Fast forward to now. This graph shows the explosive growth of research papers covering aspects of nano-EHS between 2001 and 2008. In a few short years we've gone from no data to, one could argue, too much data. Too much data, you say? Then explain why every newspaper article and policy report I read on the subject ends up saying basically the same thing: we still don't know enough about engineered nanomaterials to quantify risks.

The reasons are myriad and include the slow development and acceptance of standards for toxicity testing, materials characterization and even terminology; the dearth of validated protocols for testing; and other ripples of the culture clash that ensued when materials scientists, aerosol physicists, environmental engineers, and toxicologists all started to learn to collaborate.

People who have witnessed the emergence of other interdisciplinary fields of inquiry could have told us it would take some time to work out and then propagate the best research practices. But there seems to be a special urgency to nano-EHS research as governments, NGOs, companies, attorneys and other interested parties grapple with how this body of data should be used to inform decision-making. The various "solutions to the nano-EHS issue" being bandied about, including regulation, insurance policies, voluntary codes, risk markets, etc., all rely upon good quality data that is interpreted correctly. Journalists need to get a feel for what a reasonable community of experts thinks about this or that new paper that demonstrated the hazards of a particular nanomaterial in a particular laboratory experiment.

In short, context and analysis are critical.

Once upon a time, ICON thought it could provide this context and, indeed, we've produced a few backgrounders that review and analyze hot topics in nano-EHS. But this function is best performed by the community at large, those of you who are also wrestling with questions about choice of medium, dose, exposure route, particle sizing technique and other minutiae of life in the lab.

Starting this week, the ICON Virtual Journal aims to provide you the opportunity to shape future nano-EHS research practice by commenting on papers in our database. Despite an overwhelmingly positive response to this idea from people we surveyed during the conception and development phase, there remains some discomfort with the idea of people passing judgment on papers that have already passed through peer review. (Because we all know the peer review process is perfect.) Here are the top two reasons your peers gave for wanting this rating system:
  • Papers of high quality should be recognized so they can serve as models for other researchers in this field
  • This will help journalists, the public and other lay audiences know which research is the best, which will inform the public dialogue over nano’s risks and benefits
Now what could be wrong with recognizing papers of outstanding quality so that the field as a whole gravitates toward the best practices and people on the outside understand the implications of new work? Yes, yes, we still have issues to work out with respect to standards, etc. but in addition to giving a snapshot of where the field is now, the ratings could actually advance the discussion of best practices and broaden it to include underrepresented voices. "You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one."

Unless you're a troll, I invite you to register at the site and rate 5 papers with which you are very familiar. Then email 10 colleagues and encourage them to do the same. (Start with the cranky ones who are always griping to you about the @#^% that gets published these days in the vanity journals.) Choose a non-identifying username if you want (students seeking future employment) or publish under your own name as a way of demonstrating how smart and thoughtful you are (consultants, tenured professors). Either way, we'll be able to pull inappropriate content off the site as needed.

Safety Professionals Give Warm Reception to GoodNanoGuide

The American Industrial Hygiene Association held its annual meeting this year in Toronto with a theme of Discoveries Beyond Borders. After the Monday morning keynote address by Dr. Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, the next two keynotes were on issues AIHA has identified as “two major challenges in the field: sustainability and nanotechnology.” Addressing the issue of sustainability was Edward L. Quevedo, JD, special counsel chair for the sustainability group at Farella Braun and Martel. (An interview with Mr. Quevedo about his keynote is posted here.)

My talk kicked off Wednesday’s focus on nanotechnology. Before and after the keynote talk I was able to hang out at NIOSH’s exposition booth where I was graciously provided an internet-connected computer on which to live-demo the GoodNanoGuide to passersby. But the invitation to speak before a crowd of about 1000 occupational safety professionals provided an ideal opportunity to formally launch the GoodNanoGuide, an international online collaborative wiki designed to create a forum for people seeking to work with engineered nanomaterials safely. The format of the keynote address did not allow for questions, so AIHA set aside a separate time and place for an “Ask the Expert” session later on Wednesday morning. This session was attended by about a hundred people and we eschewed the formal structure of me sitting up on a dais for a more informal conversational mode. This involved me running up and down the aisles passing the microphone back and forth among the questioners, myself and others in the audience better equipped to answer a given question. (Most times, this was Chuck Geraci, Laura Hodson or Donna Heidel from NIOSH who could report on specific research being done at the institute to inform occupational practice.)

Feedback to the talk and to the GoodNanoGuide was positive and we noted a major spike in visits to the site during the meeting. But even more importantly, we are already beginning to field requests to join the GoodNanoGuide community. (We map their locations here.) This is vital because the site will only grow into the knowledge base we all want it to become if a diverse and robust community of experts contributes. Join us by visiting the GoodNanoGuide here and registering as a contributor.

Remember, Nano-EHS Researchers are People Too

I need your help. ICON is preparing a modification to our Virtual Journal of Nano-EHS to allow users to rate papers they have read. While our survey on this topic generated an overwhelmingly positive response, we recognize that allowing the community to rate papers that have already passed through peer review is potentially sensitive. We want to make it clear that thoughtful, incisive commentary is welcome and trolls will be banned. Please help by submitting your thoughts on how to construct a useful Comment Guidelines policy that helps raters understand the purpose of the ratings and the "rules" for playing nice in the sandbox. If there are good examples out there relevant to scientific discussions (as opposed to consumer product sites such as Amazon) that would be helpful as well.

Here is my first pass at a Comment Guidelines policy.

Only rate papers you have read. Merely reading the abstract is not enough to evaluate a paper’s merits. ICON provides a link to the paper’s listing in the source journal where you may find it posted in its entirety or can purchase it if you are not a subscriber. We are unable to provide you with copies of papers in the VJ.

Only rate papers you are qualified to assess. This resource allows people with knowledge of nanomaterials, metrology, toxicology, environmental impact, etc. to bring that expertise to bear in evaluating the technical literature. If you are unfamiliar with the subject matter or the methods, don’t rate the paper.

Refrain from rating your own papers. If you are an author, please do not rate your own work. (Or get your mother or cousin or fishing buddy to do so.) You may leave a response to other raters in the comments box, in which case you should identify yourself as an author.
Evaluate each paper on its scientific merits. Well-meaning people can disagree about the attributes of the ideal nano-EHS paper. But well-meaning people do not slam a paper because the author prevailed over them in a proposal competition or turned them down for a post-doc position. If you are pursuing any agenda other than well-intentioned critique of nano-EHS research, do so elsewhere. For guidance on rating papers, please review our Recommended Criteria for Rating Papers in the Virtual Journal.

Use common courtesy and tact. Be professional, especially when submitting a less than flattering review. Remember, nano-EHS researchers are people too. Specific, constructive feedback will be received better than withering criticism. Substantive, well-written comments will earn you a following in the VJ as people seek out trusted experts to help them filter through the literature.

Do not pass yourself off as someone else. You are free to choose a username that obscures your identity but do not choose one that falsely identifies you as another real person or associates you with an organization with which you have no affiliation. Do not misrepresent the sector in which you work.

Do not abuse the comment box. The comment box is not the place to plug your work, promote your blog, sell your product, hurl insults, use profane language, etc. Any comments that are deemed inappropriate can be flagged and will be removed. Offenders will be barred from posting.

NanoEHS: Preaching to the Choir or Missionary Work in Hostile Territory?

I spent most of yesterday in a dimly lit room of Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center, attending the EHS track of the NSTI Nanotech 2009 conference, for which I organized the afternoon session on workplace practices. I have done this kind of thing before for NSTI, having put together a session on Nanotechnology and Society for the 2005 meeting in Anaheim. What a difference four years makes.

Then: Keynotes focused on enormous potential of nanotech to solve societal problems.
Now: Keynote speaker from Bayer Materials Science spent much of his time talking about safety, minimizing exposure and engineering controls before getting to Baytubes.

Then: The EHS session was billed as a special symposium and was a hodgepodge of science, standards, regulation and policy.
Now: The EHS session was a stand-alone track and there were enough submissions to have separate sessions on toxicology, workplace practices and regulatory/policy issues.

Then: This session garnered a smallish crowd.
Now: The room was packed for toxicology and full enough for occupational practices.

Then: The crowd was excited about nanotech's potential but curious about why we needed to discuss "societal" impacts.
Now: The attendees were savvy about the complexity of issues associated with understanding nanomaterials' impacts.

On that last point, I was pleased to hear attendees pressing the toxicology speakers during Q&A to be explicit about what type of nanomaterials were tested, what dose metrics were employed, whether residual metal particles were present, etc. The questions demonstrated a level of sophistication not seen back in 2005 when most people wanted to know: Are these things dangerous or not?

OK so one person asked Val Vallyathan, a NIOSH researcher talking about the nanotube-asbestos comparison, the naive question, "So, are carbon nanotubes 'the next asbestos' or not?" To which he replied, "The current studies are inconclusive. We can't say without systematic studies varying the dose, animal model, etc."

I know there are now whole meetings devoted to nanoEHS research, and that societies such as SOT are offering extended tracks on nanotoxicology. One of my colleagues in the nanoEHS space said that he goes to a lot of these meetings where he feels like he's preaching to the choir. The NSTI meeting has always had a more optimistic, business development, applications orientation where raising safety issues can feel more like missionary work in hostile territory. So seeing the EHS issue penetrate the NSTI meeting to this extent leads me to the conclusion that these communities are finally coming together in a way that bodes well for nanomaterial stewardship.
Back to the meeting!

Article Published on GoodNanoGuide

The Spring Issue of Nanotechnology Law and Business is out now (subscription only) with an article penned by myself and Matthew Jaffe of Crowell & Moring entitled, "The GoodNanoGuide: A Novel Approach for Developing Good Practices for Handling Engineered Nanomaterials in an Occupational Setting." In it we describe the history, structure and purpose of the project. For more information, see this slideshow or join us next week at the NSTI Nanotech 2009 conference.

Five ICON members listed among Top 10 NanoEHS Experts

The Spring Issue of the journal Nanotechnology Law and Business has a listing of its Top Ten Experts in Environmental, Health, and Safety Issues Related to Engineered Nanomaterials (subscription required). These people are described as
ten individuals with substantial expertise in environmental, health and safety issues related to engineered nanomaterials. We expect these individuals to play leading roles in nanotechnology law and business.
I am pleased to report that five out of the ten experts listed participate on ICON's steering or executive committee.
BUILDING A BETTER MOUSETRAP: PATENTING BIOTECHNOLOGY IN THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITYVicki Colvin (Rice University), Barbara Karn (US EPA), Kristen Kulinowski (me, Rice University), Andrew Maynard (Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies), and Mary Beth Miller (Unidym).
Thanks to all these experts for their contributions to ICON and the wider NanoEHS community. And thanks to Matthew Jaffe for sending this news along.

ICON at Nanotech 2009

The Nanotech Conference and Expo 2009 (May 3-7) organized by NSTI promises to be a week filled with nano goodness. For those who haven't yet planned every last minute here is a schedule of activities that ICON is hosting or involved with:

1:30-3:30 pm EHS Workplace Practices [Room 351 CF]
[This is part of a whole track on EHS that begins at 10:30 am with a session on Nano Toxicology Studies]

2:00-4:00 pm I will be in the Expo [Rice Booth 901] to answer questions about CBEN or ICON.
5:00-6:00 pm ICON reception at the Expo [Rice Booth 901]

10:30 am GoodNanoGuide Sneak Preview [Room 361 CF]: A hands-on demo of our newest project. Please bring your wireless-enabled laptop to take the GoodNanoGuide for a spin.

I hope to see you there!