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VeilleNanos - What are the risks for exposed workers?

What are the risks for exposed workers?

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What are the risks for exposed workers?

By the AVICENN team – Last modification May 2022

New properties, new risks?

At the nanometric scale, materials can have enhanced or new properties, some of which can be dangerous for exposed workers (higher reactivity, explosiveness, flammability, etc.).

Among them, the potential for emissions and occupational exposure to aerosols during operations involving nanomaterials has been considered one of the main emerging risks in the workplace since at least 2009 by EU-OSHA1See Workplace Exposure to Nanomaterials, EU-OSHA, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 2009.

Risks still not well understood

The impact that exposure to manufactured nanomaterials may have on human health is still largely unknown and fraught with uncertainty.

Even more limited is the knowledge of the specific health effects on workers.

Rare and limited toxicological studies

The scarcity and limitations of toxicological studies do not allow for simple and unambiguous answers on the short-term risks of nanomaterials. In particular, until recently, few studies focused on the inhalation of nanomaterials, even though this is the most likely route of occupational exposure and the one of greatest concern for exposed workersSee2our fact sheet on the entry points and fate of nanomaterials in the human body. However, this pathway is now being given more consideration. Nevertheless, the harmful effects observed in numerous toxicological studies are often contested or minimized by industrialists who hide behind the expectation of convincing results from epidemiological studies… in order to play for time.

An exposure that is difficult to measure

Despite the development of more efficient instruments (in terms of sensitivity, reproducibility, flexibility) and the improvement of knowledgeSee3in particular the work of the INRS on nanomaterials, measurements at workstations are not carried out in a systematic and simple manner. This requires high-performance equipment that is often complex to implement, expensive, and combines several techniques, as well as technical skills that are still rare.

Epidemiological studies rarely of good quality

Effects that can take years to appear

Health effects in workers may take many years to appear, after a relatively long period of repeated exposure and latency between the end of exposure and the date of onset of symptoms or discovery of disease4“Chronic effects – such as lung and circulatory infections – can take decades to manifest and be diagnosed” – Aída Maria Ponce Del Castillo (ETUI), Nanomaterials in the workplace, What are the issues for workers’ health, May 2013. These conditions are not necessarily specific in nature, as there is nothing to distinguish them from another origin, particularly extra-occupational.

It is difficult to establish a clear cause and effect relationship between occupational exposure to nanoparticles and pathologies

The causal link is even more difficult to determine because workers are often exposed to multiple chemicals:

  • in the workplace, with interactions between nanos and “classic” and sometimes dangerous chemical substances that are difficult to identify and control (this is called the“cocktail effect”).
  • in everyday life, via non-occupational exposure to nanos and chemicals that the general population is exposed to viafood,water, cosmetics, air pollution, etc.

In the meantime, in the absence of indisputable toxicological, epidemiological and biomedical data, raw materials in nanometric form continue to be handled by workers without prior information. However, the French authorities have recognized that “efforts must be pursued to improve knowledge and allow, in particular, to refine the assessment of effects and risks “5Response of the French authorities to the public consultation “Towards a strategic nanotechnology action plan (SNAP) 2010-2015”, March 2010. Work on the risks related to occupational exposure to nanos is carried out within specialized platforms on nano risks at INERIS, INRS, and CEA.

Nevertheless, there are worrying signs

Although incomplete, the available data are rather worrying: inhaled nanomaterials can indeed diffuse in the body, be transformed from a physico-chemical point of view, and then accumulate in certain organs, in the blood and inside cells6See our fact sheet on the entry points and fate of nanoparticles in the human body and cause disturbances or even harmful effects (pulmonary inflammatory reaction; pulmonary fibrosis; risks of lung cancer in case of inhalation of titanium dioxide nanoparticles and long and rigid carbon nanotubes for example).

As early as 2014, the French National Agency for Health Safety (ANSES) had advocated the classification of nanomaterials as hazardous substances under the European regulation CLPEvaluation of7the risks associated with nanomaterials – Issues and update of knowledge, ANSES, April 2014 (posted online May 15, 2014).

The risk of fire and explosion is also particularly worrying (especially for aluminum, magnesium or lithium nanoparticles as well as for carbon nanotubes)8See in particular:
Nanomaterials in transport and housing: What are the risks related to thermal degradation, Simon Delcour, LNE, wébinar, June 2019
Army scientists have a blast with aluminum nanoparticles, U.S. Army Research Laboratory, June 7, 2018

What are the similarities with asbestos?

In animals, effects similar to those of asbestos have been observed: rats in the laboratory have developed mesothelioma following exposure to certain types of carbon nanotubes. The toxicity of carbon nanotubes has been clarified by numerous studies, not all of which have the same potential for danger. The longer and thinner they are, the more dangerous they areSee9our sheet on the risks of carbon nanotubes. As in the case of asbestos, the consequences of a lack of prevention are feared because the effects on health are likely to appear only several years – or even decades – after exposure to nanomaterials… hence the need to protect workers and to set up a device to monitor their health status over the long term.

Various cases of pathologies already reported

Several cases of pathologies observed in workers exposed to nanoparticles have nevertheless already been reported:

Some examples from 2009 to 2017

Note, at the end of 2017, a legal “first” in Europe on occupational exposure to nanoparticles: a Spanish judge considered that a worker who had undergone a kidney transplant should not be assigned to a position exposing to nanomaterials14Prevecion integral, Primera sentencia en Europa sobre exposición a nanopartículas, 15 December 2017 (Una juez de Pamplona decide, en una sentencia admirable, que un trasplantado de riñón es especialmente sensible a las nanopartículas). This opinion could have significant implications in the years to come.

What vigilance?

Too little protection for workers exposed to nanomaterials

Ten years ago, companies in France and abroad were not able to protect the health and safety of their workers from the risks of nanotechnology.15See in particular:
– C.D. Engeman et al, Governance implications of nanomaterials companies’ inconsistent risk perceptions and safety practices, Journal of Nanoparticle Research, 14 (3), 1-12, February 2012
– INRS, Repérage des salariés potentiellement exposés aux nanoparticules, Références en Santé au travail, n°132, December 2012
– Conti J.A. et al. Health and safety practices in the nanomaterials workplace: results from an international survey, Environmental Science & Technology, 42 (9), 3155-3162, 2008
. The situation is slowly improving: personal protective equipment (PPE) and collective protective equipment are gradually being introduced, particularly for research and development laboratory staff. These issues of safety of use and health risks are beginning to be taken more into account, but there is still much to be done: efforts must be intensified.

Companies reluctant to participate in risk research efforts

In April 2019, INRS launched a first call to companies using amorphous silicas for research in occupational health: “Occupational exposure to nanostructured amorphous silicas: biomarkers of early effects” (2019-2022). Due to a lack of responses, INRS had to launch a new call two and a half years later, in September 2021… Will it have enabled more companies to be recruited? The gap between the display and the reality of the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) can be measured by this type of approach…

Too few practical and directly applicable recommendations

Apart from the publications of the INRS, the High Council for Public Health (HCSP) or the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU OSHA),16see our bibliography “Nano and Health at Work”.However, there are few operational recommendations available to these professionals: to date, no guidelines, recommendations from the Haute Autorité de Santé (HAS) or learned societies have been published.

Occupational health professionals working in companies have many questions: where are the nanos? how to identify hazards? how to evaluate exposures? what medical follow-up should be carried out? etc. Their observation is unanimous: intervening and advising is complicated; there is a global lack of knowledge of the risks related to nanos. These professionals stress that they are isolated in the field, lack information and have few partners. However, this should not lead to inaction.

Many of these occupational health professionals (occupational physicians, nurses, technicians or prevention advisors) have joined working groups on the identification and prevention of nanomaterial-related risks since 2016, set up as part of regional occupational health plans (PRST).
Tools to guide action have been developed and disseminated in the Burgundy-Franco-Comté, Pays de la Loire, Auvergne-Rhône Alpes and New Aquitaine regions. In the companies of New Aquitaine, a network of “nano referents” has been set up in the occupational health services of the 12 departments of this large region, with 4 priority areas: traceability of exposure, information and training on risks, advice to reduce exposure to the lowest possible level, medical surveillance and health monitoring

The unions, particularly the CFDT, organize awareness / training sessions on nano-risks, in conjunction with the INRS and AVICENN.

A necessity: intensify the efforts!

All these elements combined lead us to recommend the utmost vigilance, in accordance with the precautionary principle. The stakes are high: the aim is toavoid repeating the mistakes of the past: if the carcinogenic effects of asbestos were demonstrated in the 1930s, it was not until the 1990s that the first prohibition laws came into force…

A question, a comment? This sheet realized by AVICENN is intended to be completed and updated. Please feel free to contribute.

The next nano meetings

NanoSafe conference 2023 (CEA, Grenoble)
  • 8th International Conference on Health Issues for a Responsible Approach to Nanomaterials
  • From June 5 to 9, 2023
  • Organizer: French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission(CEA)
  • Website:…
How the world deals with Materials on the Nanoscale – Responsible Use and Challenges (OECD-BMUV, Berlin)
  • International Conference from June 22 to 23, 2023
  • Organizers: OECD, German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection(BMUV)
  • Website: https: //…
São Paulo School of Advanced Science on Nanotechnology, Agriculture & Environment (SPSAS NanoAgri&Enviro, São Paulo)
São Paulo
  • From July 3 to 15, 2023 in São Paulo
  • Organizer: FABESP
  • Application from November 18 to February 05. Registration fees and travel expenses are covered.
  • Speakers: see the complete program here.

File initially put on line in July 2015

Notes & références

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