This chapter discusses the unique properties of nanomaterials, solid superatomic materials with at least one dimension in the range of one to 100 nanometers. Subsequent sections discuss the potential safety and health concerns from nanomaterials (based on cell culture and animal studies), the routes of exposure, and guidance on how to prevent exposures to nanomaterials.

Nanomaterials are any solid superatomic materials with at least one dimension (length, width, or depth) between one and 100 nanometers (nm). This size range (1-100 nm) is referred to as “nanoscale”. Nanomaterials can exhibit unique physical and chemical properties not seen in larger molecules of the same composition, properties described later in this Chapter. Substantial private and public investments are flowing into the exploration and development of products that can take advantage of the unique properties of nanomaterials. Researchers and EHS staff must consider the potential health, safety, and environmental risks that might result during this research and development boom caused by the promise of nanotechnology.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a strategic plan and research agenda to address the health and safety of nanomaterials. Consult their Nanotechnology Page for more information.

One meter consists of 1000 millimeters (mm). One millimeter equals 1000 micrometers (µm), and one micrometer equals 1000 nm. Thus, 1 nm = 1×10-9 m.

How do nanomaterials compare in size to other objects regarded as “small”? Dust mites have a diameter of approximately 200 µm. Human hairs have a diameter of 60-120 µm. Thus, both are 1000 or more times larger than nanoscale. The smallest known bacterial species, such as the genusMycoplasma, have a diameter of approximately 300 nm (.3 µm), which is still greater than nanoscale. Some smaller viruses (e.g. Parvoviruses, diameter ~25 nm) exist at nanoscale, but most viruses are larger. Typical double-stranded DNA has a diameter of ~2.5 nm.

Nanomaterials are among the smallest materials that can exist, because the smallest unit of elemental matter that retains the properties of the element (the atom) is not much smaller than nanoscale. Due to the uncertain position of the electron cloud around the central nucleus, scientists can only estimate the diameter of atoms. However, most estimates of atomic diameter range from .05 to .25 nm (0.5 to 2.5 Angstroms).

Nanomaterials divide roughly into two main categories: ambient (or “natural”) nanoparticles, and engineered/manufactured nanomaterials. The rest of this Chapter will use the term “nanoparticles” when referring specifically to nanoscale natural (non-engineered) substances. The term “nanomaterials” will be used as a blanket term for all nanoscale substances. In most scientific uses, the terms are interchangeable.

Figure 18.1
Figure 18.1.
Left: Diesel engines produce particulate soot, which includes ultrafine amorphous carbon (inset). Right: Welding produces metal fumes, many of which are ultrafine/nanoscale (inset).

Ambient nanoparticles are also known as “ultrafine” particles in standard industrial hygiene terminology. Sources include diesel engine exhaust, welding fumes, and other combustion processes. Most grinding and crushing processes are incapable of producing nanoparticles, unless fine bead mills are used. Ultrafine/nanoparticles have a larger surface area per unit volume than an equal volume of same composition larger particles. This can lead to different physical, chemical, and biological response properties.

Other natural nanoparticles include smaller viruses and rickettsia, and intracellular proteins, nucleic acids, and organelles.

Engineered or manufactured nanomaterials are deliberately created and used for a structural/functional purpose. Engineered nanomaterials can include both homogeneous materials and heterogeneous structures with specific applications in computing, medicine, and other disciplines. The next section will examine several examples of engineered nanomaterials.

This section is not remotely inclusive, but gives you a few examples of nano-based products that are currently available, and others that are in development.
Several commercially available products already use nanoparticles for their desirable properties. 3M makes a dental composite called Filtek™ that consists of nanosilica particles. Other companies use nanofibers to impart stain and wrinkle resistance to fabrics. Tennis balls manufactured with nanoclay particle cores hold air pressure longer than conventional balls. Zinc oxide nanoparticles are now common in many sunscreens and cosmetics, the advantage being that the nanoparticles are transparent (unlike the larger particles) so the products are clear rather than white. Of course, nanotechnology also has a rich present and future in computing and technological applications, to create smaller and more powerful chips. In the coming years, the number of these nano-based consumer products is expected to grow exponentially.
Many nanotech-based products are already used in research laboratories, and you might already have some of these in your lab. New scintillation fluids contain proprietary fluor-containing nanoparticles that do not require organic solvents as the carrier. The advantage is that used scintillation cocktail is only radioactive waste, rather than mixed radioactive and ignitable waste, saving disposal costs. Sturdy fluorescent probes are now available, using quantum dot semiconductor particles. Recently, scientists were able to combine polyguanine with silica nanoparticles to create a new electrochemical immunosensor for TNF-α1.
The ability to employ nanoparticles and create nanomaterials holds great potential in the field of medicine, as many diseases result from damage at the molecular or cellular level. Therefore, the ability to deliver pharmaceuticals and therapeutic gene “payloads” at the cellular level, with nanomaterials acting as the delivery system, holds great promise. For example, calcium phosphate nanoparticles can deliver DNA to particular cells targeted for gene therapy2. A recent breakthrough in imprint lithography allows the production of monodisperse nanoscale particles that can effectively contain delicate payloads3. In the near future, it might be possible for engineered nanomaterials to take over the function of damaged/defective subcellular organelles such as mitochondria4.
Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) also deserve attention, since they are a basic building block for many current and future products. These allotropes of carbon assemble themselves into cylindrical sheets. Single-walled CNTs have a diameter of approximately 1.3 nm, while multi-walled CNTs have larger diameters that are still within nanoscale.

Figure 18.2
Figure 18.2. Representation of a single-walled carbon nanotube.

CNTs can be up to several millimeters long, and possess tensile strength more than twenty times greater than carbon steel. CNTs also are efficient conductors of heat, excellent electron emitters, and can assemble into strong ropes of increasing diameter through VanDerWaal’s forces. All of these are highly desirable material properties. Currently, CNTs are used in diverse applications such as lightweight carbon fiber bicycle pieces, water desalination filters, concrete strengthening, and solar cells. Their field emission properties have been harnessed to produce scanning X-ray imaging systems5. As the production and use of carbon nanotubes in laboratory research environments increases, the potential for exposure to CNTs also increases. The next section will cover known and suspected health effects from CNTs and other nanomaterials.


1Wang J, Liu G, Engelhard MH, and Lin Y. Sensitive Immunoassay of a Biomarker Tumor Necrosis Factor-a Based on Poly(guanine)-Functionalized Silica Nanoparticle Label. Analy Chem 78(19): 6974-6979 (2006).

2Roy I, Mitra S, Maitra A, and Mozumdar S. Calcium Phosphate Nanoparticles as Novel Non-Viral Vectors for Targeted Gene Delivery. Intl J of Pharmaceutics 250(1): 25-33 (2003).

3Euliss LE, DuPont JA, Gratton S, and DeSimone J. Imparting Size, Shape, and Composition Control of Materials for Nanomedicine. Chem Soc Reviews 35: 1095-1104 (2006).

4Datta R and Jaitawat SS. Nanotechnology – The New Frontier of Medicine. Med J Armed Forces India 62(3): 263-268 (2006).

5Zhang J, Yang G, Rajaram R, Guan E, Lee Y, LaLush D, Chang S, Lu JP, and Zhou O. A Stationary Scanning X-ray Imaging System based on Carbon Nanotube Field Emitters. Med Physics 33(6): 2159 (2006).

As stated earlier, nanomaterials have a larger surface area to volume ratio compared to larger materials of the same composition. Nanomaterials, like many other solids, can have biological impacts based on their structure. Below is a summary of known and suspected health hazards from nanomaterials, based on recent research in animal models and in vitro assays.
Inhalation is the most likely exposure route in laboratory settings, and the most extensive health effects studies have involved the inhalation route. From the time when carbon nanotubes were first seen through transmission electron microscopy, investigators noticed a startling physical similarity to asbestos (Figure 18.3). Both exist as fibers; with a length/width aspect ratio of at least 3:1, and both can exist at nanoscale (asbestos fibers as small as 2.5 nm diameter can occur naturally). Several decades of experimental data and retrospective epidemiological evidence have shown that asbestos exposure can lead to pulmonary fibrosis, mesothelioma, and increased risk of lung cancer, which is strongly synergistic when combined with smoking. Can CNTs cause similar health effects?

Figure 18.3
Figure 18.3

CNTs can, like asbestos, reach the gas exchange (alveolar) regions of the deep lung, and trigger inflammation and oxidative stress. Studies in mice have shown that single-walled CNTs can produce pulmonary granulomas, whereas equivalent mass doses of ultrafine carbon black did not6,7. This implies that the shape and surface chemistry properties of CNTs impart an increase in pulmonary toxicity.

Respiratory studies for other nanomaterials are also informative. Extensive research on diesel exhaust particulates has led to their characterization by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a reasonably anticipated human lung carcinogen. For titanium dioxide (a substance used at nanoparticle size in cosmetics, sunscreens, and self-cleaning windows), 25 nm diameter particles produced more potent lung damage than 250 nm diameter particles8. Since both sizes of particles are capable of reaching the deep lung, there must be another factor such as surface area to volume ratio, solubility, or agglomeration creating the toxicity difference. Nanoparticles that agglomerate tend to deposit in the nasopharyngeal region or the upper airways.

Discrete nanoparticles that reach the deep lung might be small enough to penetrate through alveolar epithelial cells, enter the capillaries, and translocate to other organs9. For discrete nanoparticles that remain in the nasopharyngeal region, translocation to the brain via axonal transport through the olfactory nerve has been shown in rats10.

In summary, animal studies indicate the following potential concerns from exposures to nanomaterials through the inhalation route:

  • CNTs might possess asbestos-like properties
  • For all nanomaterials, equivalent mass doses of the same materials might exhibit higher toxicity at nanoscale size
  • Previously unobserved translocation routes (via alveoli to bloodstream, via olfactory nerve to brain) might exist
Skin penetration might be a viable exposure route for nanomaterials, though it is too soon to know whether it represents an important exposure route. Studies of titanium dioxide nanoparticles (found in some cosmetics and sunscreens) found that these particles did not penetrate beyond the epidermis11. Another study has shown that quantum dot nanomaterials with varying physicochemical properties were able to penetrate the intact skin of pigs12. Localized effects are also possible, as shown in vitrowhen CNTs were absorbed into skin cells leading to cytokine production and oxidative stress13.
Very little is known about potential adverse effects from exposure to nanomaterials by ingestion. Ingestion might be the least likely exposure route in a laboratory or workplace setting. Ingestion could occur directly by mouth, or indirectly through mucociliary clearance of upper airways. It is presumed that nanomaterials could reach just about any organ or tissue after ingestion, if they are capable of penetrating skin cells, alveolar epithelium, and blood vessel walls.

6Shvedova et al. Unusual Inflammatory and Fibrogenic Pulmonary Responses to Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes in Mice. Am J Physiology – Lung, Cell, & Mol Physiol 289: L698-L708 (2005).

7Lam CW, James JT, McCluskey R, Arepalli S, Hunter RL. Pulmonary Toxicity of Single-Wall Carbon Nanotubes in Mice 7 and 90 Days after Intratrachial Installation. Toxicol Sci 77: 126-134 (2004).

8Oberdörster, G. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. London Series A 358(1775):2719-2740 (2000).

9Oberdörster et al. Extrapulmonary translocation of ultrafine carbon particles following whole-body inhalation exposure of rats. J Toxicol Environ Health 65 Part A(20): 1531-1543 (2002).

10Oberdörster et al. Translocation of inhaled ultrafine particles to the brain. Inhal Toxicol 16(6-7): 437-445 (2004).

11The Royal Society, The Royal Academy of Engineering. Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies. London, UK: The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering: http://www.nanotec.org.uk/finalReport.htm (2004).

12Ryman-Rasmussen JP, Riviere JE, Monteiro-Riviere NA. Penetration of Intact Skin by Quantum Dots with Diverse Physicochemicals Properties. Toxicol Sci 91(1): 159-165 (2006).

13 Monteiro-Riviere et al. Multi-walled carbon nanotube interactions with human epidermal keratinocytes. Toxicol Lett 155(3): 377-384 (2005).

Safety hazards with nanomaterials vary based on the composition of the materials. However, a few general observations are possible. For flammable or combustible solids (e.g. some metals), nanoscale materials could present a higher fire-explosion risk compared to coarser particles of the same material14. Decreased particle size can increase the combustion potential and combustion rate, and reactive/catalytic properties can exist at nanoscale that do not exist at larger scales. Gold is relatively inert as a macromolecule, but gold nanoparticles can catalyze the conversion of carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide.

The greater activity of nanoscale materials forms the basis for research into nanoenergetics. For example, nanoscale thermite powders composed of aluminum and molybdenum trioxide ignite more than 300 times faster than corresponding micrometer-scale material15.


14Health and Safety Executive. Horizon scannon information sheet on nanotechnology. Sudbury, Suffolk, United Kingdom: Health and Safety Executive. (2004).

15Granier JJ and Pantoya ML. Laser Ignition of Nanocomposite Thermites.Combustion Flame 138:373-382 (2004).

This section details the ways that you can protect yourself when working with nanomaterials. Though there are still gaps in the safety and health knowledge literature, this section describes prudent use and handling practices that can protect you not just from nanomaterials, but other potentially harmful substances in the lab.

The most significant exposure route in laboratory settings would be inhalation, and this is the route with the most toxicity data. Respirable exposures would be most likely during the creation or handling of nanomaterials in aerosol, powder, or colloidal suspension. Nanomaterials in composites are not as likely to result in respirable exposures unless they are cut, ground, or degraded. As with all potential exposures, the best place to start is the OSHA “hierarchy of controls”, which goes from engineering controls to work practice controls to personal protective equipment. Engineering controls always come first, since they have the potential to remove the exposure from the work area. Do not consider using personal protective equipment until you have considered all engineering and work practice controls.

It is a sound assumption that local exhaust ventilation systems (such as laboratory hoods) would effectively remove nanomaterials from the air, based on research about the capture of ultrafine particles by these systems.

To avoid re-entrainment of nanomaterials, EHS recommends High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) systems in conjunction with local exhaust ventilation. Filtration systems must be able to capture at least 99.97% of monodispersed 300 nm aerosols in order to qualify for HEPA rating. The 300 nm diameter is the most penetrating particle size. Particles smaller than 300 nm (including the nanoscale of 1-100 nm) are actually captured more effectively due to diffusion or electrostatic attraction, and particles larger than 300 nm are captured by impaction and interception. Thus, HEPA filters should effectively capture nanomaterials, however, the filter must sit properly in the housing, or nanomaterials will bypass it and take the path of least resistance.

The most effective work practice control is product substitution, with a safer product used in place of a more hazardous one. For nanomaterial research, this is generally not feasible, since the experiment requires the unique nanoscale properties. However, other work practice controls are feasible. Try to use “wet” materials whenever possible, since dry materials are much more likely to cause respirable exposures. Make sure to clean up work areas effectively; use wet methods (not dry sweeping!) and consider the purchase of a HEPA vacuum. As with all laboratory substances, designate food and drink areas far from where you handle materials. If necessary, provide for adequate hand washing, showering, and clean clothes storage areas. Good work practice controls can minimize your exposure potentials from all major routes (respirable, skin contact, and ingestion).
Earlier, under the Engineering Controls section, it was noted that HEPA filtration systems on ventilation systems could remove more than 99.97% of airborne nanomaterials. Similarly, properly fitted elastomeric respirators with HEPA cartridges (Figure 18.4a) should be able to prevent respirable exposure to airborne nanomaterials. Proper fit is critical, since a poor face seal means the particles and their airstream take the path of least resistance through the seal gaps into the breathing zone. See Chapter 5: Protective Clothing and Equipment for more information about the medical evaluation and fit testing requirements for tight-fitting respirators. Remember that you cannot consider respiratory protection or any other personal protective equipment until feasible engineering and work practice controls are exhausted.

Figures 18.4a and 18.4b
Figures 18.4a and 18.4b

Filtering facepiece respirators such as the N-95 (Figure 18.4b) are capable of filtering nanomaterials, but are prone to gaps and inward leakage. These respirators are not personal protective equipment from exposure to nanoaerosols.

There is currently very little data to indicate whether skin protective equipment such as gloves, Tyvek® sleeves and suits, etc., can protect from nanomaterials. Most available data is from bloodborne pathogen protective equipment, which is challenge-tested with a 27 nm bacteriophage per ANSI (the American National Standards Institute).

Currently, it is unknown whether the skin is a significant route of exposure to nanomaterials. Until more data becomes available, you should use gloves (double gloving for extensive skin contact) and sleeves to prevent skin contact, and change gloves frequently. When handling nanomaterials in solution you should wear gloves that are chemically resistant to the solution or solvent nanomaterials are suspended in.

All nanomaterial waste should be handled as chemical waste. Contaminated solid waste (paper, gloves, wipes, tips) should be collected and submitted using the online chemical waste pick-up form available on the EHS website. Pure unused nanomaterials in solid or powder form should be containerized and submitted as waste. Nanomaterials dissolved or suspended in solvents or formulations should also be collected following the waste handling rules outlined in Chapter 12 and submitted as a chemical waste mixture.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of the leaders in research devoted to nanotechnology. University researchers are working with and developing novel nanomaterials between 1 and 500 nanometers (nm) in size. Currently, there is limited occupational safety information on nanoparticles and nanomaterials in the university research environment. The purpose of this policy is to proactively address the safety issues in the emerging field of nanotechnology and ensure that University employees performing nanotechnology research are aware of the potential hazards and risks involved and the control measures that should be utilized to limit exposures. For the specifics of the policy, reference the EHS website.
Nanomaterials exhibit unique properties that could challenge traditional perceptions about particle behavior and industrial hygiene, and more research is ongoing. At this time, it appears that traditional prudent approaches to avoid exposures (engineering controls, work practice controls, personal protective equipment) would also work for nanomaterials.

The EHS website has further resources available regarding Nanotechnology Safety. Please contact EHS if you have any questions, or if you want to request an evaluation of your work conditions.

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