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Assessing the occupational exposure to nanoparticles

HEXACOMM is an European project to assess the risk of occupational exposure to nanoparticles, in the context of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Although industrial use of nanoparticles is recent, occupational exposure to them is rising in all sectors.

Taking samples in a company. HEXACOMM, acronym of Human Exposure to Aerosol Contaminants in Modern Microenvironments) will fund the research of twelve doctoral theses, in the frame of the European Marie Curie Program (FP7). Two of these theses will be developed by scientists of the group of Atmospheric Inorganic Geochemistry,  led by scientists Xavier Querol and Andrés Alastuey, at the CSIC’s Instituto de Diagnóstico Ambiental y Estudios del Agua (IDAEA).

Industrial use of nanoparticles is recent. Nevertheless, occupational exposure to them is rising in all sectors, as more companies produce or use nanoparticles for diverse applications. Examples are the titanium dioxide nanoparticles, which are incorporated in suncreams as a filter, or the particles added in pigments or printer inks. But there are also industrial processes where nanoparticles are unintentionally generated, for instance, when  a ceramic material is crushed in order to obtain small particles. In this case, the process generates a waste, which is actually a dust composed of tiny nanoparticles.

Harm derived from the exposure to nanoparticles depends on several factors, like its chemical composition, its morphology and size, which will determine the ways nanoparticles can penetrate organisms (respiratory or through the dermis). Nanoparticles are extremely small: one nanometer is 0,000001 milimeter, smaller than a human hair, whose diameter, in the case of a a thin hair, is around 0,025 millimetres.

Harm derived from the exposure to nanoparticles depends on several factors, like its chemical composition, its morphology and size

Mar Viana, CSIC scientist at the IDAEA explains that the research  will focus on particles with diameters smaller than 100 nanometres (0,0001 millimetres). A tiny crack, a tank that doesn’t close hermetically or a small variation in an extractor hood are potential causes of a nanoparticles escape. “We take samples in the companies that participate in the project. The tools used for the sampling are similar to the ones for controlling atmospheric pollution, although slightly adapted.”

To assess the risk, explains the scientist, air samples are taken very near to the production chain, in order to detect if there are escapes of nanoparticles from the industrial process. Leaks can happen when nanoparticles are produced as well as when they are incorporated into other products (like when carbon nanotubes emulsion are applied  on other objects) or when waste containing nanoparticles is taken to be recycled or destructed.

Another essential part of the task is to exclude as an escape the nanoparticle that could have infiltrated from the outside. And not less important is to analyze the chemical and physical  composition of nanoparticles. “Even when the composition of nanoparticles produced is known, they are generally very unstable and in case of escape to the air they agglomerate or bond to other compounds”, points out Mar Viana.

For this project, that will be carried out until 2016, the CSIC scientists cooperate with the Helsinky University, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and the Institute of Chemical Process Fundamentals in Prague.

Website of the project: