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Nanoparticles come at the top of occupational chemical risks
22 Apr, 2009 09:10 pm
It is estimated that each year there are 74,000 work-related deaths linked to hazardous substances encountered in the workplace. A report by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) ? called Expert Forecast on Emerging Chemical Risks - established by 49 experts across Europe, puts nanoparticles at the top of the list of substances from which workers need protection. Prof Dietmar Reinert, one of the co-author of the report, comments on the news for Scitizen.
Did some results of the survey come as a surprise?
We had more than 80 different risks on the list. A little bit surprising for me was that man-made mineral fibres came in the top ten. We did not estimate it so dangerous for the future, since there have been developed novel fibre species posing a considerable lower risk. It was also quite interesting that nanotechnologies arrive at the first place. According to our experience, nano technology seems to be connotated quite positively in the general population. Yet, the experts clearly say that nano may be a real problem in the future. Even if there are many European projects in this field, there is still a lot of investigation to do. The report made it very clear that it is the first emerging risk to look at.
How do you explain that so little is known on the health and safety effects of nanoparticles?
You cannot say directly that nothing is known, when you look at diesel exhausts or welding fumes, for example. We know a lot about ultrafine particles and we also do prevention in this area. But when you look at the engineered nanoparticles, the man-made nanoparticles so-called, then I would say that in many cases we do not have a lot of experience. When you want to do epidemiological studies, you need some time. Yet, the engineered nanoparticles are relatively young. In this case, we need experiments with animals. We already know a lot about the distribution of nanoparticles in the body, but we need some more time to know enough about the effects in the body.
Did you find huge discrepancies across Europe in terms of occupational chemical risks prevention?
It was not an aim of the expert forecast to look at differences in Europe. We did not really check whether there were differences between experts (for example, between those from the North of Europe, or the South, the East or the West). Generally speaking, I would say that there are differences. For example, the new occupational health and safety measures come more often from the North, from Scandinavia, the Netherlands or from Central Europe. Yet, in the case of exposure to chemical risks, there are only slight differences between the South and the North of Europe. Personal protective equipment for example is standardized by European norms and directives. Also REACH will help to harmonize the situation in Europe.
What main prevention measures does the report advocate in view of emerging occupational safety and health risks?
That depends very much on the emerging risks you look at. In the case of nanoparticles, for example, you can use personal protective equipment or you can enclose the process and use exhausting systems. In the case of other emerging risks like dermal exposure, you can substitute dangerous substances or use gloves or other personal protective equipment. For waste treatment you may use exhausting systems. Depending on the toxicity of new substances in many cases no new protective measures have to be developed because the known ones in most cases are adoptable.
Read the report
Prof. Dr. Dietmar Reinert is deputy director of the BGIA - Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the German Social Accident Insurance.