Size, composition, morphology, and health implications of airborne incidental metal-containing nanoparticles

There is great concern regarding the adverse health implications of engineered nanoparticles. However, there are many circumstances where the production of incidental nanoparticles, i.e., nanoparticles unintentionally generated as a side product of some anthropogenic process, is of even greater concern. In this study, metal-based incidental nanoparticles were measured in two occupational settings: a machining center and a foundry. On-site characterization of substrate-deposited incidental nanoparticles using a field-portable X-ray fluorescence provided some insights into the chemical characteristics of these metal-containing particles. The same substrates were then used to carry out further off-site analysis including single-particle analysis using scanning electron microscopy and energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy. Between the two sites, there were similarities in the size and composition of the incidental nanoparticles as well as in the agglomeration and coagulation behavior of nanoparticles. In particular, incidental nanoparticles were identified in two forms: submicrometer fractal-like agglomerates from activities such as welding and supermicrometer particles with incidental nanoparticles coagulated to their surface, herein referenced as nanoparticle collectors. These agglomerates will affect deposition and transport inside the respiratory system of the respirable incidental nanoparticles and the corresponding health implications. The studies of incidental nanoparticles generated in occupational settings lay the groundwork on which occupational health and safety protocols should be built.