October 25, 2011
By: by Brian Nearing, Staff Writer, Times Union
ALBANY -- Workers handled asbestos for years before science studied and understood how dangerous the microscopic fibers were when inhaled. Able to cause cancer years after being lodged deep into the lungs, the fibers are part of the infinitely small realm of nanoscale.
Now, nanotechnology seems poised to transform many aspects of manufacturing, electronics and health, but a question remains unanswered: What are potential risks to workers exposed to many tiny engineered particles vastly smaller than the width of a human hair?
Such an answer is being sought at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering of the University at Albany by faculty member Dr. Sara Brenner and graduate student Michele Shepard, who recently got support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study potential nanoparticle exposure to workers there who are making what could lead to the next generation of semiconductor computer chips.
During the next three years, the pair will take hundreds of samples from chip manufacturing labs located off Fuller Road, learning how many engineered nanoparticles are present in air and looking at ways workers might be exposed, such as to the lungs through breathing or through the skin by handling tools or coming into contact with liquids.
"We will be looking to quantify and characterize the particles we collect, to help us better understand potential hazards and risks. Our project is meant to show the potential exposure pathways and reduce them," said Brenner, an assistant vice president for nanohealth initiatives and assistant professor of nanobioscience.
Collecting filters -- which can capture particles down to 10 nanometers -- will be worn by some workers during their shifts, while other sensors will be kept at work sites, where nanoparticles of silicon and metallic oxides are being used.
A nanometer is a billionth of a meter; an inch contains 25.4 million nanometers. Asbestos fibers can be about 25 nanometers wide, while a human hair is positively gigantic at 100,000 nanometers wide.
"There are no currently enforceable limits on the presence of nanoparticles in the air or water of a workplace," said Shepard, whose work work will look at particles from 300 to 10 nanometers. "In addition to collecting particles out of the air, we will be looking a workers' tools, wiping down surfaces, and looking at liquids that are sent to wastewater treatment," she said.
Currently, there are about 2,500 workers at the college, which is a partnership with Sematech, the computer chip research consortium, and the International Sematech Manufacturing Initiative. "We have several different manufacturers here now, with differences in techniques," Brenner said.
The three-year fellowship funded by the EPA -- worth about $120,000 -- for Shepard's work marks the first time that the EPA has funded the nanocollege.
Brenner said the research is a step toward determine how to safely "dose" exposure to nanoparticles, so standards can be set for workers, as well as for consumers who will someone buy such products and later have to dispose of them.
"This research will help us understand the environmental and public health implications of engineered nanomaterials across their life cycle from manufacturer thru application and finally disposal," said Dr. Robert Kavlock, interim national program director for EPA's Chemical Safety Research. "The work is important because we need to understand both the positive and the negative aspects of the use of nanomaterials in products before they are used widely, with subsequent exposure to workers and consumers."