Nanotechology and Your Gloves - Are You Safe?

A temporary tattoo that monitors blood glucose levels. A new biomaterial that can potentially rebuild worn tooth enamel. A 3D printed titanium jaw implant. It all sounds rather sci-fi, but all of it is made possible by the booming field of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale to create new materials or devices. There are a vast range of applications from organic chemistry and molecular biology, to semiconductor physics and microfabrication.

By late 2013 there were over 1600 consumer products on the market made possible by nanotechnology, and it is estimated that by the end of 2014, about 15% of all products were impacted by this new and fast growing science.

Engineered Nanoparticles and Worker Safety

With trillions of dollars going to nanotech research and product development, the nanotechnology workforce is also rapidly growing. By 2020 it is projected that there will be a workforce of some 6 million worldwide, with 2 million of that being in the U.S.

Nanotechnology workers handle the tiniest of matter – just 1-100 nanometers. Many of these engineered nanomaterials (ENMs,) also called engineered nanoparticles (ENPs,) have properties unique from their larger counterparts. This brings a whole new set of challenges for worker health and safety.

Materials considered safe at their historical size could become hazardous in their new nano form. Because so much is unknown about the risks associated with ENPs, The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) is recommending that all ENPs be considered hazardous. Recently, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified nanosized titanium dioxide (nTiO2) in 2B-group as possibly carcinogenic to humans.

To protect themselves, workers handling nTiO2 wear protective gloves. Is this enough?

Researchers Study ENPs and Gloves

Researchers in Montreal, Canada wanted to know which gloves efficiently protect against titanium dioxide nanoparticles in work conditions. Their study, published last fall, shed some interesting light on the ability of nano-sized particles to get past some trusted barriers.

The study tested two nitrile gloves at different thicknesses identified as NBR-100 (.10 mm thick) and NBR-200 (.20 mm thick,) a latex glove (thickness unknown,) and a non-disposable butyl rubber glove. Each glove was then brought into contact with nTiO2 in water, in propylene glycol, and in powder. The simulated work conditions in the test were equivalent to about 3 hours wearing time for the nitrile and latex gloves, and 7 hours for the non-disposable butyl glove.

“The results are different depending on the glove models and the nTiO2 application mode. Table 1 summarizes the efficiency of all the protective gloves studied against nTiO2.


Table 1. Efficiency of protective gloves
NBR-100 NBR-200 Latex Butyl rubber
nTiO2 in water Poor Good Good Good
nTiO2 in PG Good Good Good Good
nTiO2 in powder Weak Good Good Poor


In the case of NBR-200, the thickness has a major role as barrier whereas for latex gloves, the chemical composition seems to be the main actor in the efficiency. Some tests are needed to confirm the results obtained with nTiO2 in powder. So we need for further investigations but for the moment, great care must be taken in selecting protective gloves for the handling nTiO2. It is already possible to recommend a frequent replacement of gloves in case of exposure to nTiO2.”

The study also noted that the “micrometer-sized surface features” – pores, cracks and platelets in the gloves – “may facilitate the penetration of nTiO2 through protective gloves.”

Not noted in the study was the gloves’ Acceptable Quality Level (AQL) for holes. Because of the nature of thin-modulus gloves, all nitrile and latex gloves can have pinholes. The FDA requires that medical gloves have a maximum AQL of 1.5 for holes, but the FDA minimum requirement for cleanroom and other non-medical gloves is only 2.5 – meaning more holes. Some cleanroom gloves, however, have a higher AQL than what is required. (All HandPRO brand cleanroom gloves, for instance, are manufactured with the lower AQL of 1.5 required for medical gloves.)

Based on this study, a thick nitrile or latex glove provided better safety than a thin nitrile glove or even a thick butyl glove in the case of nTiO2 in water.

As work in nanotechnology continues to skyrocket, no doubt additional studies will be conducted on other ENPs so that workers can be better protected.


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