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WHO issues first guidelines on protecting workers from nanomaterials

carbon nano tube
Photo: ollaweila/iStockphoto

Geneva, Switzerland — The World Health Organization has released evidence-based guidelines intended to help protect workers from potential health hazards posed by manufactured nanomaterials.

Because of their size – “materials that have at least one dimension (height, width or length) that is smaller than 100 nanometers” – manufactured nanomaterials are used in numerous industrial applications, including paints, electronics and drugs. However, with their increased use comes the need to understand how manufactured nanomaterials may affect workers who handle or work near them.

Not only do the hazards need to be understood, but testing methods have to be either invented or refined, even if the nanomaterials are of the same substances used in their more familiar larger forms, WHO states. The executive summary in WHO’s guidelines concedes that “no long-term adverse health effects in humans have been observed,” and recommendations for safety and health must be based on results of in vitro and animal exposures to nanomaterials during, for example, air pollution.

The guidelines’ underlying principle is precaution – that exposure to nanomaterials should be reduced regardless of uncertainties about any negative long-term health effects. Best practices include:

  • Grouping nanomaterials into manufactured nanomaterials by specific toxicity, manufactured nanomaterials that are fibers and manufactured nanomaterials that are granular biopersistent particles
  • Educating and training workers on health and safety factors specific to manufactured nanomaterials
  • Involving workers in all aspects of risk assessment and control

WHO anticipates a surge in research of manufactured nanomaterials and has proposed updating the guidelines in 2022.

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