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Nanotechnology: Guidelines for Safe Research Practices

See safety guidelines for researchers working with engineered nanoparticles.

The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative defines nanotechnology as the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers (a nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter), where unique phenomena enable novel applications.

Engineered nanoparticles are intentionally created particles with nanoscale dimensions. Nanoparticles can be spheres, rods, tubes, and other geometric shapes. They may be bound to surfaces or substrates, put into solution or suspension, attached to a polymer, or in a few cases handled as dry powder.

Limited information is currently available on the toxicity of a few types of nanoparticles. When research involves work with engineered particles for which no toxicity data is yet available, it is prudent to assume the nanoparticles may be toxic.

Follow the safety guidelines below to protect yourself from possible hazards.

Safety training

Required: The PI must provide appropriate, rigorous, and documented safety training.

  • Instruct employees about the hazards and risks of handling nanoparticles and how to protect themselves. Ensure that:
    • A safety protocol is written into the research procedure
    • Safety Data Sheets (formerly called Material Safety Data Sheets), the manufacturer's handling instructions, and UC San Diego standard operating procedures are carefully read
      • Note: Given the lack of extensive data on nanoparticles, Safety Data Sheet information may be more applicable to the properties of the bulk material.
  • Inform employees about the 4 possible routes of workplace exposure to nanoparticles:
    • Inhalation: Because of their tiny size, certain nanoparticles appear to penetrate deep into the lungs and may translocate to other organs following pathways not demonstrated in studies with larger particles.
    • Ingestion: Once ingested, some types of nanoparticles might be absorbed and transported within the body by the circulatory system.
    • Injection: Accidental injection or skin puncture is a potential route of exposure, especially when working with animals or needles.
    • Skin absorption: In some cases, nanoparticles have been shown to migrate through the skin and circulate in the body. If the particle is carcinogenic or allergenic, even tiny quantities may be biologically significant.
  • Provide and train employees in the correct use of personal protective equipment and engineering controls. Find these topics in other sections of this page below:
    • Personal protective equipment
    • Control the hazards
  • Make sure everyone understands what to do in case of emergency. See:
  • Ensure that employees who work with reactive nanoparticles complete fire extinguisher training. See:
  • Keep training records that include:
    • Topics covered
    • Materials distributed
    • Date
    • Employee names
    • Employee signatures

Hazard assessment

Evaluate the hazards before beginning work:

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

Wear appropriate PPE:

  • Double nitrile gloves
    • Remove used outer gloves inside a fume hood or under a local exhaust ventilation and place in a sealed bag to prevent particles from becoming airborne.
  • Lab coat with sleeves fully extended to the wrist
  • Safety glasses or goggles
  • A respirator with NIOSH-approved filters that are rated as N-, R-, or P-100 (HEPA) if you must work outside of a ventilated area with nanomaterials that could become airborne

Control the hazards

  • Handle nanoparticles whenever possible in a form that is not easily made airborne, such as in solution or on a substrate.
    • Alternatively, handle nanoparticles with engineering controls such as an HEPA-filtered local capture hood or glove box.
      Note: Locate HEPA-filtered, local capture systems as close to the possible source of nanoparticles as possible. Installation must be properly engineered to maintain adequate ventilation capture.
  • Perform work inside a fume hood if an HEPA-filtered control system or glove box is unavailable.
  • Use a fume hood to expel any nanoparticles from tube furnaces or chemical reaction vessels. Do not exhaust aerosols containing engineered nanoparticles inside buildings.
  • Do not eat, drink, chew gum, apply cosmetics, or handle contact lenses in the laboratory, except in clearly marked Clean Areas. Wash hands frequently and before eating.
  • Follow standard sharps practices to prevent accidental injection or skin puncture.
  • Clean up spills (see Emergency Preparedness below) of nanoparticles promptly.
  • Wet wipe work surfaces daily. Alternatively, use disposable bench paper.
  • Wet wipe lab equipment and exhaust systems used with nanoparticles and HEPA-vacuum them prior to reuse, service, or disposal. See Decontamination Clearance for Equipment or Facilities.
  • Place Tacki-Mat® or a similar sticky walk-off mat at the lab's exit to reduce the likelihood of spreading nanoparticles.

Emergency preparedness

  • Know the locations and how to use the nearest:
  • Prepare for spills. Clean up only very small quantities and only if you have been properly trained.
    • Read How to Handle Chemical Spills in Laboratories. Keep a chemical spill kit easily accessible.
    • Wear PPE, including double nitrile gloves and a lab coat.
    • For spills that might result in airborne nanoparticles, proper respiratory protection is required (See Personal Protective Equipment above).
    • Do not brush or sweep spilled or dried nanoparticles.
    • Place Tacki-Mat® at the spill area exit to reduce the likelihood of spreading nanoparticles.
    • Dispose of spill containment materials as hazardous waste (see Hazardous Waste Disposal below).

Exposure response

Treat any exposure seriously, no matter how slight it may seem at the moment.

  • All exposures:
    • Give first aid treatment, and then seek medical attention immediately as needed.
    • Call UC San Diego Police at (858) 534-4357 (534-HELP) and request an ambulance, if transportation is necessary.
    • Call Poison Control, (800) 222-1222, if additional information is needed.
  • Ingestion: Seek medical attention immediately.
  • Skin exposure: Flush exposed skin with water for at least 15 minutes while removing any contaminated clothing.
  • Eye exposure: Flush eyes with water for at least 15 minutes. Affected individuals may need help holding their eyes open under water. Seek medical attention immediately at an emergency room.

Hazardous waste disposal

Treat all waste engineered nanoparticles as hazardous waste unless they are known to be non-hazardous.

Note: Alert EH&S hazardous waste technicians when you request collection of nanomaterials.

Related information

Contact the EH&S Research Assistance Program specialist assigned to your building.
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