School of Public Health and Community Medicine - University of Washington - Aut 2008
Emerging Issues | Nanotechnology | New Workforce, New Issues
Measuring Exposure | Drug-Resistant Bacteria Found on Public Beaches | People & Places | Conference Presentations
A Fond Farewell to Kathy Hall | Continuing Education & Events | 2009 Calendar | The Fine Print

In this edition, we focus on emerging issues important to Washington state business and labor. We describe research and activities related to nanotechnology, training underserved populations, measuring exposures in large animal feeding operations, and drug-resistant bacteria.


2008 APHA conference
At the 2008 APHA conference, graduate students Catharine Riley (left) and Kristin Beima explain the importance of engaging the public on an emerging issue like nanotechnology.
Photo by Jon Sharpe.

As of August 2008, there were more than 800 consumer products made with nanomaterials available worldwide, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. Nanotechnology is the process of or material produced by manipulating particles 100 nanometers or smaller. It can be found in a wide range of items, such as stain-resistant fabrics, breathable bed sheets, and lighter, stronger bicycle frames. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter; the diameter of a human hair is 100,000 times larger.

Many companies and agencies support continued development of nanotechnologies in diverse applications, including biomedical, thermal, and electronic. Supporters point to the enormous advantages offered by nanotechnology in meeting societal needs. Take, for example, antimicrobial bandages or methods being developed to improve detection of biological agents such as E. coli on food or cancer at its earliest stages in the body.

Nanotechnology will signi9cantly change business practices. The Washington Nanotechnology Initiative's 2004 report estimates that in the next decade, the industries affected will account for more than 400,000 jobs in Washington state alone, and world-wide, the market for nano-based products will top one trillion dollars.

Still, many recognize that gaps exist in our understanding of the effect nanomaterials may have on human health and the environment. At stake in this continuing dialogue are potential harms to workers manufacturing products made with nanomaterials as well as consumers who use them. But ambivalence about nanotechnology may stall what many say is a vital industry with enormous benefits.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and others stand behind the responsible development and safe use of nanotechnology. Our researchers are looking at whether materials that incorporate nanotechnology pose unique work-related health risks and how employees might be exposed to nanomaterials in manufacture and use.

In 2006, Professor Michael Yost participated in an investigative experiment with a group of researchers convened by the Washington Technology Center to see what kind of special handling practices might need to be employed if carbon nanotubes, a kind of nanomaterial, were added to the composite materials being tested for possible use on airplanes. Would workers be exposed to the carbon nanomaterials during typical manufacturing processes such as sanding, drilling, or cutting into the composite? Yost worked with UW researchers, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and the Boeing Company to design and monitor a controlled simulation of the plastic resin being sanded. Results of the study showed that sanding released more nano-sized particles in the composite impregnated with carbon nanotubes than the composite without them.

"Dealing with risks upfront and identifying what they might be is a critical part of any new technology," said Professor David Eaton, who is Director of the UW Center for Ecogenetics & Environmental Health (CEEH) and UW Associate Vice Provost for Research. Eaton chaired a committee that reviewed the government's strategic plan for research on potential health and environmental risks posed by nanomaterials. A fundamental question in setting a research strategy is "How can we gather the science necessary to have informed regulation?" said Eaton. Also important, he added, is "to identify ways to control exposure or produce nanotechnologies in such a way to minimize risk." The committee recommended that the government's plan should determine the financial and technical resources needed to address identified research gaps.

Juxtaposing rapid scientific and technological advancement with unknown health risks may lead to divisive positions. Recent history provides telling examples of what can happen, such as the backlash to genetically modi9ed foods in Europe.

Because the public ultimately bears the burden or reaps the benefits of scientific advancement, it is better to engage and educate from the beginning and reduce the burden of uncertainty that leads to worry, even misgivings, reported UW graduate student Catharine Riley at the American Public Health Association (APHA) conference. She cited a June 2008 ethics forum on nanoscience as one way to foster discussion. Sponsored by the Ethics and Outreach Core of the CEEH, the forum addressed nanotechnology issues related to toxicity, safety, and regulation and featured Professors Eaton, Yost, and Terry Kavanagh.

Part of the problem in assuring the public of the technology's safety lies in how little experts know about the toxicity of some of these miniscule particles. Kavanagh endorses ongoing e8orts to develop a nanotoxicity database that would be able to predict and score nanomaterials on their toxicity in various applications. Integrated and available information on these materials will be invaluable to "the development of safer-by-design nanoproducts," wrote Kavanagh and DEOHS colleagues in a recent report.

Kavanagh, Research Scientist Dianne Botta, and others in Kavanagh's lab are studying quantum dots (Qdots) for their biocompatibility in medical applications. Qdots are ;uorescing, semiconductor nanoparticles. With their colleague, Professor Xiaohu Gao (Department of Bioengineering), they are examining di8erent structures of a nanomaterial core and varying the coating used around the core. Funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the project aims to determine di8erent combinations that are stable and relatively non-toxic and to identify those properties of the Qdot that may be responsible for inducing adverse e8ects in the body.

Some say there's nothing novel about nanotechnology. Nanomaterials are just manufactured at a di8erent size than the same chemicals we already know about. "But those of us who work in the area think that's probably not true," said Kavanagh. Nano-sized particles of these chemicals have unique properties, and that's part of their attraction and their challenge.


NIOSH and CDC on nanotechnology

Review of Federal Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health, and Safety Research