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Nanomaterials Overview

Environmental Health & Safety has established interim guidelines to ensure effective control of the use, handling, storage, disposal, and engineering of nanomaterials in laboratories. These guidelines must be read by all participants engaged in the use of nanomaterials during their research. Once you have read the guidelines, you must also register your project in the Safety Management System (SMS). Additionally, read the laboratory guidelines and register your project.

Our Nanomaterials Risk Level Management (NRLM) within the SMS, is a control-banding tool used to assess your potential exposure risk based on severity and probability factors associated with your particular project. For more details about our Nanomaterials Risk Level Management System, refer to the Nanomaterials Risk Level Management System section.

Nanomaterials Risk Level Management System

Exposure to nanomaterials should always be minimized by using administrative controls (working with materials in solution, for example) or engineering controls (such as fume hoods).  If there is potential for airborne exposure to nanomaterials,  personal air monitoring may need to be performed with the results compared to an exposure limit as defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or other regulatory agency. If the concentration exceeds any established limits, then corrective actions such as the use of engineering controls, personal protective equipment, adjustment of work practices, and/or administrative controls would be recommended to reduce the ambient concentration in the environment and the worker's exposure. However, in many cases the appropriate index of exposure for nanomaterials has yet to be determined. Many studies suggest that total surface area concentration may be a better exposure index than mass concentration. Particle number concentration has also been suggested as an alternative to mass concentration. Thus, there's no consensus on how to actually measure nanoparticle exposure unless. Not only do we not know what to measure, but we also have very little toxicological data for determining nanomaterial-specific occupational exposure limits. Without having this critical information, it is impossible to conduct an exposure assessment that would be conclusive and well-founded.

Control banding is a qualitative instrument that uses categories, or "bands" of health hazards, combined with exposure potentials or scenarios to determine the desired levels of control. The concept of control banding started in the pharmaceutical industry approximately 20 years ago due to the limited availability of pharmacological and toxicological data of products being handled by laboratory workers. It was used as a simplified method to assess worker risks and implement appropriate controls.

In the Nanomaterials Risk Level Management System the control bands are based on four overall risk levels. These risk levels are determined as a function of the severity and probability scores that are assigned to the nanomaterials project based on a series of identified factors.

Based on what is known about the toxicological effects of nanoparticles, the following factors are considered in determining the overall severity of Nanoscale materials:

  • The ability of nanoparticles to reach the respiratory tract;
  • The ability of nanoparticles to deposit into various regions of the respiratory tract;
  • The ability of nanoparticles to penetrate or be absorbed through the skin; and
  • The ability for the nanoparticles to elicit a biological response.

Some of the physicochemical and toxicological characteristics of the Nanoscale material that may contribute to its severity are:

  • Surface chemistry;
  • Particle shape;
  • Particle diameter;
  • Solubility;
  • Carcinogenicity;
  • Reproductive toxicity;
  • Mutagenicity;
  • Dermal toxicity;
  • Toxicity of the parent material;
  • Carcinogenicity of the parent material;
  • Reproductive toxicity of the parent material;
  • Mutagenicity of the parent material; and
  • Dermal hazard potential of the parent material.

The probability score is based on the potential for the Nanoscale material to become airborne and the likelihood of exposure by route of inhalation. The following factors were considered when determining the overall probability score:

  • The estimated amount of nanomaterial used during the task;
  • Dustiness/mistiness of the task;
  • Number of employees with similar exposures;
  • Frequency of the operation; and
  • Duration of the operation.

Until quantitative methods have been established to assess worker exposure risks, Environmental Health & Safety has developed this online control banding nanotool as a qualitative risk assessment to control nanoparticle exposure. 

If you are a Principal Investigator conducting research that involves the use of nanomaterials, you are required to answer the questions presented in the Nanomaterials Risk Level Management System so that an overall risk level can be assigned to your operation. This data entry should be conducted for each project that will use a specific nanomaterial or process.

  • Log into the Safety Management System.
  • If you have not done so previously, register your lab space within the SMS.
  • Indicate that you work with Nanomaterials, either during the lab registration process or by editing the lab configuration on the Summary tab.
  • On the Nanomaterials tab, which should now be visible, you may now register your nanomaterials project.

Frequently Asked Questions

Yes. Environmental Health & Safety reviews 3D printing systems and procedures for exposure and discharge risks. Information gathered includes printer model and description, process type, raw materials, and location. If you have a system and have not already contacted Environmental Health & Safety, please do so at 540-231-3600.

Equipment that may be contaminated with hazardous materials must be cleaned by the user/owner before asking anyone outside the group to service, move, or pick up for surplus sale. The Lab Equipment Decontamination Form is used to prepare items for handling by workers including service personnel, moving teams, and Surplus Property staff.

  • Agglomerate: A group of particles held together by relatively weak forces (for example, Van der Waals or capillary), that may break apart into smaller particles upon processing.
  • Aggregate: A discrete group of particles in which the various individual components are not easily broken apart, such as in the case of primary particles that are strongly bonded together (for example, fused, sintered, or metallically bonded particles).
  • Atomic force microscope: A high-powered instrument able to image surfaces to molecular accuracy by mechanically probing their surface contours.
  • Buckyball: Geodesic spheres were named for visionary engineer R. Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic sphere. Buckyballs are strong, rigid natural molecules arranged in a series of interlocking hexagonal shapes, forming structures that resemble soccer balls. One individual buckyball comprises exactly 60 carbon atoms. In 1996, Richard Smalley received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery of buckyballs.
  • Dendrimer: A synthetic, three-dimensional macromolecule formed using a nanoscale fabrication process. A dendrimer is built up from a monomer, with new branches added in steps until a tree-like structure is created (dendrimer comes from the Greek dendra, meaning tree). A dendrimer is technically a polymer.
  • Feynman: Nanotechnology traces its roots to the pioneering work of physicist Richard Feynman. In 1959, Feynman delivered a landmark speech in which he proposed a link between biology and manufacturing. He explained how biological cells manufacture substances. Feynman urged his audience “to consider the possibility that we, too, can make a thing very small, which does what we want—that we can manufacture an object than maneuvers at that level.”
  • Fine particle: A particle smaller than about 2.5 micrometers and larger than about 0.1 micrometers in size.
  • Fullerene: a molecular form of pure carbon that was discovered in 1985. They are cage-like structures of carbon atoms.
  • Nano: Pertaining to things on a scale of approximately 1 to 100 nanometers (nm).
  • Nanocomposite: a material that is stiffer and lighter than traditional thermoplastics, and less brittle in cold temperatures. Nanocomposites are made by introducing a solid material into a plastic resin to give it added strength. Because there is less additive material, they are more recyclable than olefins and other thermoplastics.
  • Nanofabrication: the practice of sculpting or building, with man-made tools, products, structures and processes with atomic precision.
  • Nanomanipulation: the process of building things from the bottom up, atom by atom. Nanomanipulation can be classified into two categories: Nanofabrication and self-assembly.
  • Nanomechanical: refers to a small, mechanical device, such as a robot, that can manipulate single molecules.
  • Nanometer: one-billionth of a meter, which is approximately the width of 10 hydrogen atoms. The width of the dot above the letter “i” in this sentence is approximately 1 million nanometers. The diameter of an average hair is 50,000 nanometers.
  • Nanoparticle: A sub-classification of ultrafine particles with lengths in two or three dimensions greater than 0.001 micrometer (1 nanometer) and smaller than about 0.1 micrometer (100 nanometers) and which may or may not exhibit a size-related intensive property.
  • Nanoscale: Having one or more dimensions from approximately 1 to 100 nanometers (nm).
  • Nanoscience: The study of nanoscale materials, processes, phenomena, or devices.
  • Nanotechnology: the science of manipulating atoms and molecules to fabricate materials, devices, and systems. Unlike current production methods, in which existing parts and components are combined, nanotechnology takes atoms and precisely assembles them to produce items with desirable characteristics. Objects are built in a manner similar to the way bricks are stacked on top of one another to build a wall. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “nanotechnology” was coined in 1974.
  • Nanotube: a tiny, hollow cylinder with an outside diameter of a nanometer that is formed spontaneously from atoms such as carbon. When aligned in a certain way, their atoms can conduct electricity as effectively as copper. Aligned in a slightly different way, they are electrical semiconductors—midway between conductors and insulators. Nanotubes are also stronger than steel, so long filaments can be used to create super-tough lightweight materials.
  • Non-transitive nanoparticle:  A nanoparticle that does not exhibit size-related intensive properties.
  • Particle: A small object that behaves as a whole unit in terms of its transport and properties.
  • Quantum Dot:  A nano-scale crystalline structure made from cadmium selenide that absorbs white light and then reemits it a couple of nanoseconds later in a specific color. The quantum dot has been around since the 1980s when scientists were looking into the technology as a way to build nano-scale computing applications where light is used to process information. More recently, however, the technology is being used in medicine. The crystals are one ten-millionth of an inch in size and can be dissolved in water. When illuminated, they act as molecule-sized LEDs and can be used as probes to track antibodies, viruses, proteins, or DNA within the human body.
  • Transitive nanoparticle: A nanoparticle exhibiting a size-related intensive property that differs significantly from that observed in fine particles or bulk materials.
  • Ultrafine particle: A particle ranging in size from approximately 0.1 micrometers (100 nanometers) to
    .001 micrometers (1 nanometer).

Refer to NIOSH's most frequently asked questions.


Contact Information

Zack Adams, Industrial Hygienist

Phone: 540-231-3600