Self-cleaning windows…lighter, stronger car parts… tattoos that can monitor a diabetic’s blood glucose levels. All of these inventions are now possible due to new techniques in the field of nanotechnology.

But if you’re working in a nanotechnology lab, are you putting yourself in danger? The answer is unclear. Understanding the safety hazards of nanoparticles can help you keep yourself safe in the lab.

Nanotechnology Basics

The prefix “nano” comes from the Greek root meaning “dwarf.” One nanometer is a billionth of a meter – about 80,000 times less than the thickness of a human hair. Nanotechnology makes use of nano-sized materials, usually between 1 and 100 nanometers in diameter, to produce substances with specific properties that typical materials just can’t compete with.

But nanotechnology is such a new field that some fear it may put workers in danger. After all, the fact that larger particles cannot pass through a given set of protective gloves does not mean that the same thing applies to nanoparticles. And nanoparticles may not be as innocent as they sound when it comes to worker safety.

Nanoparticle Research – Dangerous?

If nanoparticles touch the skin or are inhaled, they may pose a health hazard to workers. Although research on the topic is still in development, it seems that nanoparticles can enter the respiratory tract or the skin and make their way to the bloodstream, which may carry the nanoparticles to various organs.

Nanoparticles in the bloodstream could cross the blood-brain barrier, according to the American Chemical Society (ACS). The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that some nanoparticles can have a catalytic effect, in ways that we can’t necessarily predict. They also cite animal studies suggesting that nanoparticles can cause pulmonary inflammation or lung tumors if inhaled.

What the Research Says

Although protective gloves can guard the hand against coming into contact with most chemicals, nanoparticles are so tiny that they may be able to slip through the glove and onto the wearer’s skin.

So what type of protective gloves should be used when dealing with nanoparticles? Because this field is still so new, the guidelines are still in flux, but research does seem to show that the type of glove can make a difference in protecting workers from nanoparticles.

In 2014, researchers in Montreal tested several different types of gloves – nitrile gloves at NBR-100, nitrile gloves at NBR-200, latex gloves, and non-disposable butyl rubber gloves – to determine which protected the wearer’s hands against titanium dioxide nanoparticles dissolved in water. Both the thin nitrile glove and the thick butyl glove failed to block the nanoparticles, whereas the thick nitrile and latex gloves successfully blocked a higher percentage of the nanoparticles.

The study also pointed out that pinholes in the gloves may allow the nanoparticles to penetrate, regardless of the type of glove being tested. All thin-modulus gloves contain pinholes, with the FDA listing minimum pinhole requirements for medical gloves (1.5 AQL) and non-medical gloves (2.5 AQL). Because these pinholes can reduce the effectiveness of the gloves against nanoparticles, workers should replace the gloves often – especially when using a colloidal solution.

Guidelines for Nanoparticle Safety

So what should you do in order to keep yourself safe when working with nanoparticles? Ideally, the selection of all personal protective equipment (PPE) should evolve from a Risk Assessment. Here are some loose guidelines to keep in mind:

  • While no glove is foolproof, when working with nanoparticles you should err on the side of caution by choosing a medical-grade glove that passes FDA biocompatibility guidelines and passes ASTM permeability testing, such as the Cobalt nitrile glove.
  • Your gloves should cover both your hands and wrists completely, and should overlap the sleeves of your lab coat or bunnysuit.
  • Consider double gloving in order to minimize the likelihood of nanoparticles coming into contact with your skin due to pinholes in the gloves.
  • If you are in a situation where nanoparticles may enter the air, use a respirator to ensure that they cannot enter your lungs.

Written by Rob Brown