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An Asphalt Pact Cut Fumes—& Created A Model
by Melissa Bailey | Jul 27, 2010 1:17 pm
Posted to: Health, Nanotech, Science/ Medical
Keystone, Colo. – Workers rolling asphalt on city streets complained they were inhaling irritating fumes. Others worried the asphalt might cause cancer.
Dr. Jim Melius shared how labor pressured industry to do something about the problem – and ended up forming a partnership that made the workplace safer.
His story was held up as a model last week at a conference hosted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The federal agency convened the meeting to talk about potential health hazards in a different industry – nanotechnology, where particles are manipulated on the near-atomic level to produce surprising properties. Nano-enhanced consumer, environmental and health products have spawned a fast-growing industry.
While the risks of exposing workers to these new nanomaterials is unknown, NIOSH is looking to the asphalt industry for one solution as it considers how to keep nanoworkers safe.
Melius, an occupational physician and epidemiologist, has worked for the last decade with the Labors International Union of North America (LIUNA). The story he shared at the NIOSH conference began in 1995, at the site of steamy blacktop. At the time, crumb rubber was being used in asphalt. When workers rolled hot asphalt onto streets, the rubber produced fumes that irritated their lungs.
Pressure was rising from local unions to address worker safety. At the time, not much was known about the risk of the fumes, and whether they might be carcinogenic.
The situation caught the attention of NIOSH, which does research and sets guidelines on occupational health and safety. NIOSH began to probe the question : Does asphalt cause cancer?
The combination of federal attention and union pressure made the industry “anxious,” Melius recalled.
“How do you get industry to cooperate?” he asked the crowd. “The best way is to scare them.”
The National Asphalt Paving Association approached LIUNA for help. The union agreed to work with the contractors to study the health issues. The collaboration took place under a few conditions: their work had to be fully transparent, it had to involve NIOSH and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. NAPA had to commit to doing further research, and had to admit to control exposures despite the uncertainty.
What followed became seen as a successful joint effort to tackle worker safety. NAPA funded research projects, joined with the union in safety training.
One of the most important results was “warm mix,” a new way of paving asphalt that used a lower temperature, thus creating fewer fumes. The “warm mix” practice spread quickly and has now become the industry standard, said Melius (pictured).
The partnership benefited outside researchers and government, he said. NIOSH didn’t have to hold separate meetings for industry and labor – they could all sit in the room together.
“It turned out to be a more efficient approach,” Melius said. Because workers felt engaged in the process, they were able to accept the slow pace of progress, Melius said.
The partnership expanded to Germany, and broadened its scope to include producers in other sectors, such as roofing, in the U.S. and Europe.
To this day, it’s still unknown whether the asphalt fumes carry health risks, according to Melius. He said scientific research found no link between the fumes and cancer.
Still, he said, the joint effort made for a more tolerable road-paving environment for workers and passersby.
As nanotechnology steams ahead, Melius suggested a similar partnership be formed.
“We need to know a lot more about the risks” to nanoworkers, he said. “Industry should be partnering with labor and government to address the uncertainties.”
Melius was the only union representative last week among the 140 conference attendees, who included government workers, industrial hygienists, toxicologists, academic researchers, and a few representatives from nanotech companies.
Conference chair Paul Schulte, director of NIOSH’s Education and Information Division, said in addition to the epidemiological research and safety guidelines NIOSH publishes, a labor-industry-federal government partnership like the one Melius described may well be a good next step.
Reached after the conference, another labor representative who deals with nanotech called the asphalt working group “an extremely successful partnership.”
“It is a model and could be duplicated in the nanotechnology world,” said Bill Kojola, an industrial hygienist for the AFL-CIO. His union represents 56 national and international labor unions, which represent 11.5 million workers. In the U.S., workers in chemical plants are one of the biggest constituencies exposed to nanomaterials, he said.
Kojola said he doesn’t know how many AFL-CIO locals deal with nano in the workplace. Of all the products and materials workers are exposed to, it’s hard to know which contain nanoparticles, and how much, he said.
“We really don’t have a full sense of what we’re dealing with here in the U.S.,” Kojola said.
Kojola said he works closely with NIOSH to stay abreast of epidemiological research on nanomaterials, as well as NIOSH’s guidelines for handling nanomaterials in the workplace.
“We’re trying to keep our fingers on the pulse of this industry,” he said.
Kojola said he’s unaware at this point of any specific labor-industry partnerships on nanoworker health and safety.
“We’re at a much earlier stage with nano,” he said. “Asphalt has been around for decades,” while nanotechnology has exploded over the past 15 years.
At this point, the health risks of nanomaterials are unknown. Research has shown some types of carbon nanotubes may be harmful.
Kojola suggested an industry-labor partnership could focus on how to minimize workers exposure to materials like carbon nanotubes.
“We may have a lot of unanswered questions about the health effects, but we have some reason to believe that nanomaterials aren’t benign and inert,” he said.
“Let’s make sure that we reduce worker exposures – so if we later find out they’re toxic, we minimize the adverse health impact.”
Meanwhile, a researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara is trying to fill in what she calls a huge gap in knowledge – who is the nanotechnology workforce?
No study has fully answered that question, and estimates vary widely. One survey by Plunkett’s Research identified 300 companies in the world that handle nanomaterials, employing far upwards of 6.4 million people, but that study included a broader definition of what nano is. Another study found over 24,000 U.S. workers whose companies deal exclusively with nanotech.
Only a handful of studies have tried to nail down who’s working in the nanotech industry – as opposed to doing academic research involving nanomaterials.
Barbara Herr Harthorn (pictured), a medical anthropologist at UC Santa Barbara, tackled that question in a recent study. She’s the principal investigator and director of the university’s Center for Nanotechnology in Society, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Harthorn and her research team identified 1,500 firms worldwide that either produce, process or handle nanomaterials. From that list, they surveyed a sample of 500 companies. About 24 percent responded. That’s 78 companies, employing over 960,000 workers.
The survey gave a sense of what fields nanomaterials are used in. Most companies, 54 percent, dealt with materials or manufacturing. Those workers build things like automobiles and airplanes, or produce materials like pharmaceuticals or concrete. Another 17 percent worked in energy or the environment. Thirteen percent worked in electronics and IT, and 8 percent in health care and life sciences.
Harthorn asked companies how many workers deal with nanomaterials, and what they do to stay safe.
While the vast majority reported having some kind of environmental health and safety (EHS) program, only 46 percent said they had specific safety protocols for nanomaterials. Asked what the biggest impediment to implementing an EHS program specific to nanotechnology, 61 percent of the companies answered “lack of information.”
NIOSH and other agencies have published suggested guidelines for limiting exposure to nanomaterials, but “It’s a huge amount of work right now to find that information,” Harthorn said. “People don’t know” what to do.
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This story brings up something I have been wondering about. What is up with all the “nano” related stories in NHI? No slam on Melissa or this article, but I literally can’t open this website up without a nano-tech related piece popping up.
Is this to pull in people searching for nano-tech? Is there a big donor who asked for the NHI to write regularly about nano-tech?
If it’s the latter (like with the school issue) then new FTC regulations require the NHI to disclose that relationship.
Sorry if I sound paranoid. Ultimately I don’t really care, and am not criticizing the NHI. I’m just really trying to make sense of the glut of stories that mention nano-technology of late.
[Editor’s Note: We received a grant to test out the idea of whether local daily news sites like ours can become launching pads for the return of smart, broader “expert” news beats that have disappeared at local and regional print dailies. Nanotech is thriving in our area, so we thought this could tie in well.]
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on July 27, 2010 4:14pm
More cobblestone or other porous street materials! They adsorb water into the ground and reduce demand on our sewer systems!