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Nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter on a near-atomic scale, continues to be a quickly developing area of research and manufacturing. From computer hard drives using the magnetic properties of nanoparticles to store more data on much smaller devices, water filtration systems, protective and glare-reducing coatings for eyeglasses and cars, stain free clothing and mattresses, and new medical treatments, nanomaterials are used in an ever-increasing number of applications.
As nanotechnology applications move from research laboratories to industrial and commercial settings, workers and employers should be aware of potential hazards posed by nanomaterials in their workplaces, and employers should take appropriate measures to control worker exposure.
Workers who use nanotechnology in research or production processes may be exposed to nanomaterials through inhalation, skin contact, or ingestion.
Nanotechnology involves materials that are extremely small and have dimensions roughly between 1 and 100 nanometres (nm). A nanometre is 1 billionth of a metre. For example, a human hair is about 70,000 to 80,000 nm, a red blood cell is about 7,000 nm, and a virus is about 10 to 100 nm.
Nanomaterials can have unique physical, chemical and biological properties that make them useful in a wide variety of applications, such as making stain-free textiles using nanoscale additives or surface treatments, or targeting drugs selectively to cancerous cells. The continued development of new nanomaterials has the potential to impact many industries, including electronics, healthcare, construction, and consumer products.
Exposure to nanomaterials
Much of the information available about the hazards specific to these substances is still incomplete. In general, nanoparticles will normally be more toxic than the same chemical substance of larger dimensions, but it is currently impossible to determine by how much due to a lack of exposure data.
Nanoparticles appear to enter the body the same way as other particles, through inhalation, ingestion or absorption through the skin. While there is no cut-off in size that makes particles toxic or nontoxic, some studies have shown that as particles become smaller, there is an increased likelihood of injury to occur.
Nanomaterials have the greatest potential to enter the body through the respiratory system if they are airborne and in the form of respirable-sized particles (nanoparticles). When inhaled, nanoparticles can be deposited in all areas of the respiratory tract depending on their size and composition. From there, they can enter the blood and lymph circulation systems and be distributed throughout the entire body. When in the blood system, they can be absorbed by the liver, spleen, bone marrow, heart and other organs.
There is also the potential for nanomaterials to contact the skin as a result of workplace exposure. With the exception of nanomaterials that are used in cosmetic products, there have been few investigations into the effects of nanomaterials on the skin. Research looking at the skin absorption potential for nanomaterials has suggested that if there is any absorption across the skin, the amounts that are absorbed will be low.
Assessing the hazards of nanomaterial
In order to conduct a risk assessment, it is important to understand the hazardous properties of the material that you are using. Since there is a limited amount of hazard data available for most nanomaterials it will be challenging to establish the toxicological behaviour of specific nanomaterials with any degree of certainty. In most cases, it will be necessary to refer to information that has been obtained for similar materials. In this case it is important to establish that the information you find is relevant for the material that you are using. Safety data sheets can be useful for this purpose.
Reduce worker exposure to nanomaterials
Because the research and use of nanomaterials continues to expand and information about potential health effects and exposure limits for these nanomaterials is still being developed, employers should use a combination of the following measures and best practices to control potential exposures. A hierarchy of controls can be used as a means of determining how to implement feasible and effective control solutions.
Elimination – Elimination of hazardous substances, including hazardous nanomaterials from processes and products, is the most effective control.
Substitution - If elimination is not feasible, substitution by a nonhazardous or less hazardous substance or by a different and safe technology should be considered.
Engineering controls - NIOSH states that "current knowledge indicates that a well-designed exhaust ventilation system with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter should effectively remove nanomaterials". Where operations cannot be enclosed, provide local exhaust ventilation (e.g., capture hood, enclosing hood) equipped with HEPA filters and designed to capture the contaminant at the point of generation or release.
Administrative controls - Establish procedures to address cleanup of nanomaterial spills and decontamination of surfaces to minimize worker exposure. For example, prohibit dry sweeping or use of compressed air for cleanup of dusts containing nanomaterials, and use wet wiping and vacuum cleaners equipped with HEPA filters. Prevent the consumption of food or beverages in workplaces where nanomaterials are handled, and provide facilities for hand washing, showering and changing clothes. Separate eating rooms and change facilities are also good options. Education and training in safe handling is essential.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) – Provide workers with appropriate personal protective equipment such as respirators, gloves and protective clothing. PPE should be used when other preventive and protective measures are not sufficient or feasible. HEPA filters, respirator cartridges and masks made with fibrous filters, protective clothing, goggles and gloves can be used. Filtering half masks have to fit well to the face because inadequate sealing raises the risk of exposure.
Protective clothing made from airtight fabrics consisting of non-woven textile can be more effective in protecting workers against nanoparticles than cotton and polypropylene. Nitrile, latex, neoprene gloves proved to be effective for nanoparticles of around 10 nm diameter when exposing the glove for a few minutes. Workers should be informed on the limits of the protective equipment, its validity, and correct use.
Nanotechnology does not need to be a complicated science. Following best practices is key to protecting workers. If they are not sure, workers can ask their employer if their workplace is using nanomaterials. In workplaces where workers will be exposed to nanomaterials, the employer should provide information and training to their workers. Worker exposure can be minimized if each step of the manufacturing operation is enclosed and the appropriate controls are in place.
In the News
Since its recent outbreak in Brazil, the mosquito-borne Zika virus has received a lot of media attention highlighting the risk of birth defects in children born to infected mothers. Although the type of mosquito that can carry the Zika virus is not found in Canada and is not well-suited to our climate, Zika awareness is important for Canadian workers travelling in areas where the virus is present, or if they have intimate contact with someone who has been exposed to Zika.
About Zika virus
Zika virus is a mosquito-borne virus discovered in 1947 in rhesus monkeys in the Zika forest of Uganda. The first human cases were found in Uganda in 1952. The Zika virus is a flavivirus and is closely related to other mosquito-borne viruses such as dengue and West Nile virus.
The most common symptoms of the Zika virus are fever, rash, sore joints and conjunctivitis (inflamed, red eyes). However, the symptoms are often not detectable at all, and many who get Zika are unaware they even have it.
Following a bite from an infected mosquito, symptoms usually appear in 3–12 days. These symptoms can include fever, joint and muscle pain, skin rash, conjunctivitis, and headache. In general, a Zika virus infection is considered a mild illness that generally resolves within 2–7 days; 75–80% of people infected with Zika virus do not display any symptoms.
If you're pregnant, or planning on becoming pregnant soon, the risks are far greater. Zika virus infection has been linked to fetal death and birth defects such as microcephaly. In this situation, the baby of an infected mother is born with a smaller than normal head, and may have incomplete brain development.
Who is at risk
Canadians travelling to countries where Zika virus is present are at risk of infection. The level of risk depends on:
Based on current information, transmission through mosquitoes in Canada is exceedingly unlikely because the specific varieties of mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus are not native to Canada. However, there is potential for the virus to spread by sexual transmission through semen from infected men, or a blood transfusion (likely but not confirmed) received from infected travellers returning from affected countries.
People who come into contact with the blood or other body fluids of infected individuals at work (for example patients), may be at risk for becoming infected by Zika virus.
As of September, 2016, 247 travel-related cases and two locally acquired case (through sexual transmission) have been reported in Canada. The case counts are updated weekly on the Government of Canada Zika surveillance website.*
The best way to protect yourself from Zika and other mosquito borne illnesses is to prevent mosquito bites by using insect repellent, wearing long sleeves and pants, and reducing or eliminating mosquito breeding grounds, such as standing water.
Currently there is no vaccine or preventive immune treatment to protect against Zika virus infection.
Employers who have workers travelling to affected countries should:
Travellers to affected countries should:
If you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, you and your partner should avoid travel to countries with ongoing Zika virus outbreaks. If travel can't be avoided or postponed, strict mosquito bite prevention measures should be followed. Consult a health care provider or visit a travel health clinic preferably six weeks before you travel.
*Updated September 1, 2016
An operational stress injury, defined by Veterans Affairs Canada, is any persistent psychological difficulty resulting from operational duties performed while serving in the Canadian Armed Forces or as a member of the RCMP. The term is used to describe a broad range of mental health issues including diagnosed psychiatric conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as other conditions that may be less severe, but still interfere with the daily life of the sufferer.
In June 2016, the Nova Scotia Operational Stress Injury (OSI) Clinic officially opened to address these issues. The new Dartmouth clinic provides full assessment, diagnosis and treatment services for Canadian Armed Forces members, Veterans, current and former members of the RCMP and their families who are living with operational stress injuries. Each OSI clinic has a team of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, mental health nurses and other specialized clinicians who understand the experience and unique needs of Veterans living with OSIs.
"Living with an OSI can be extremely difficult, not only for those who have it, but for their loved ones as well. This new clinic will make a real difference in the lives of those who receive treatment here. These proud Canadians need to know that when their service to our country has concluded, we are there for them," said The Honourable Kent Hehr, Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence.
There are now 11 clinics across Canada dedicated to addressing operational stress injuries in, as well as 26 specialized mental health clinics providing services to, Veterans across Canada.
The Nova Scotia OSI Clinic was funded by Veterans Affairs Canada and operated in partnership with the Nova Scotia Health Authority.
OSI Connect Mobile Application
OSI Connect is a free mental health learning and self-management mobile app developed to help OSI patients and their families understand the nature of operational stress injuries and to provide help through the OSI Clinic Network across Canada. The resources on OSI Connect address challenges including post-traumatic stress and triggers, depression, anger, sleep problems, substance abuse, stress management and more.
This month’s Health and Safety To Go! features the new podcast episode Preventing Permanent Hearing Loss and an encore of the podcast Water Safety for the Summer.
Feature Podcast: Preventing Permanent Hearing Loss
One of the most common occupational health hazards, noise can cause permanent, irreversible hearing loss. This episode shares what workers and their supervisors can do to help prevent permanent hearing loss at work.
The podcast runs 3:59 minutes.
Encore Podcast: Water Safety for the Summer
Shelley Dalke from the Canadian Red Cross outlines how you can stay safe while working and vacationing on the water this summer.
The podcast runs 5:27 minutes.
CCOHS produces free monthly podcasts on a wide variety of topics designed to keep you current with information, tips, and insights into the health, safety, and well-being of working Canadians. You can download the audio segment to your computer or MP3 player and listen to it at your own convenience... or on the go!
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The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.
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