The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has launched a Safety and Health Topic page on nanotechnology. Here's what the institute says under "Occupational Health Risks."
- Occupational health risks associated with manufacturing and using nanomaterials are not yet clearly understood. The rapid growth of nanotechnology is leading to the development of new materials, devices and processes that lie far beyond our current understanding of environmental and human impact. Many nanomaterials and devices are formed from nanometer-scale particles (nanoparticles) that are initially produced as aerosols or colloidal suspensions. Exposure to these materials during manufacturing and use may occur through inhalation, dermal contact and ingestion. Minimal information is currently available on dominant exposure routes, potential exposure levels and material toxicity. What information does exist comes primarily from the study of ultrafine particles (typically defined as particles smaller than 100 nanometers).
Studies have indicated that low solubility ultrafine particles are more toxic than larger particles on a mass for mass basis. There are strong indications that particle surface area and surface chemistry are primarily responsible for observed responses in cell cultures and animals. There are also indications that ultrafine particles can penetrate through the skin, or translocate from the respiratory system to other organs. Research is continuing to understand how these unique modes of biological interaction may lead to specific health effects.
Workers within nanotechnology-related industries have the potential to be exposed to uniquely engineered materials with novel sizes, shapes and physical and chemical properties, at levels far exceeding ambient concentrations. To understand the impact of these exposures on health, and how best to devise appropriate exposure monitoring and control strategies, much research is still needed. Until a clearer picture emerges, the limited evidence available would suggest caution when potential exposures to nanoparticles may occur. More here.