In late spring, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) expects to publish a guideline on nanotechnology, a science that produces materials whose properties are potentially among the world’s most beneficial but, from a health and safety perspective, are among the least understood.
Nanotechnology involves developing and using materials the size of 1 to 100 nanometers. One nanometer is a billionth of a meter. As remote as this technology may appear to most of us, says Renzo Dalla Via, senior research specialist at Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS) and chair of the guideline’s technical committee, it may have enormous health, safety and environmental implications. “Because the science is so new, there is a concern that many of these materials could see the light of day before we fully understand their environmental, health and safety impact. Alarm bells are ringing in the European Union and the US, and these bells are echoing throughout the world.”
CSA-ISO TR 12885, Guideline on OHS Practices Relevant to Nanotechnologies is a response to these concerns, providing guidance on health and safety practices in workplace settings relevant to nanotechnologies. It reflects current information about nanotechnologies, including characterization, health effects, exposure assessments, and control practices.
“To some degree,” says Dalla Via, “it’s ahead of the curve. We wanted to have it in place before work with nanomaterials becomes more widespread. We want to give manufacturers and users some sense of the precautions they will need.”
Nanotechnology manipulates material at the nanometer scale to create structures with unique and useful properties, explains Ron Meyers, project manager of CSA’s Occupational Health & Safety Program. For example, nanomaterials are very strong and very light. They are already finding their way into everything from fibre optics, fuel additives and food packaging to tires, textiles and tennis rackets.
“Industry is starting to use coatings with nanomaterials,” says Dalla Via. “They’re being introduced for pollution control, in drug therapies… it goes on and on. And manufacturing is just the first wave.”
About the guideline
CSA-ISO TR 12885 is intended to help companies, researchers, workers and others prevent adverse consequences during the production, handling, use and disposal of engineered nanomaterials. Much of the document is based on ISO 12885, Nanotechnologies — Health and safety practices in occupational settings relevant to nanotechnologies, a technical report published by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 2008.
“In anticipation of the ISO report,” says Ron Meyers, “CSA established the technical committee to create a Canadian guideline. Our document is an adaptation of the ISO document.” Renzo Dalla Via was well positioned to serve as chair of the technical committee. He also chairs the Canadian component of one of four ongoing ISO working groups that developed the ISO technical report.
The CSA guideline builds on the ISO report by addressing workplace exposure to nanomaterials. It’s similar to CSA’s new workplace ergonomics standard1 in that it provides a model for establishing a nanomaterial exposure prevention and control program. The model offers a management system approach based on CSA Z1000 — Occupational Health and Safety Management. The nanotechnology guideline uses similar formatting and structure to explain the concept of establishing a program to control workplace exposure to nanomaterials.
Where exposure hazards remain uncertain, the standard encourages workplaces to apply the “precautionary principle.” In the absence of full scientific certainty, take prudent action now rather than wait for the completion of further scientific research.
Creating a Canadian advantage
According to Brian Haydon, CSA project manager, nanotechnologies, the work of Canadian organizations such as CSA and WSPS — especially in these early stages — is critical for Canadian competitiveness. “To be at the forefront of worldwide commerce, there is a need to understand the standards and, potentially, regulations that may be needed for nanotechnology to ensure we have an equal footing with other nations.”2
Dalla Via notes that working on the guideline and technical report offers additional benefits for WSPS and our member firms. “WSPS’s involvement has given us access to an international network of experts that would otherwise have taken years to form. Through our ISO and CSA committees, we are also working with Health Canada, the National Research Council, as well as policy makers and business leaders in different provinces and industries. These relationships enable us to share information and expertise, while also ensuring that member firm interests and concerns are addressed.”
But perhaps the most important reason for participating, says Dalla Via, is prevention. “If we don’t act on this now, then we’re not preventing, we’re reacting. There are still far too many unknowns about how nanomaterials interact with the body.”
Nanotachnology will be one of the topics of discussion at the Research Exchange Forum at Health & Safety Ontario’s Partners in Prevention 2012 Health & Safety Conference & Trade Show. The forum will present research and tools on a number of topics. Forum participants include members of Ontario’s prevention system, affiliated research organizations, and academia.
Learn more about the current state of the science and key data gaps on potential health, safety and environmental risks by reading A Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials, released January 25 by the U.S. National Research Council.