Health fear: The union movement is worried that workers in the nanotechnology sector might be facing a health time bomb
The union movement is worried that workers in the nanotechnology sector might be facing a health time bomb similar to asbestos.
Nanotechnology is now used in more than 800 everyday items, including car fuel lines, bed sheets, building materials, cosmetics and sunscreens.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) says there are growing fears about the safety of producing and using nano-materials, yet there are few specific protections for workers.
Scientists have been thinking about how to manipulate individual atoms and molecules since the late 1950s but it has only been in the past couple of decades that they have developed equipment that is up to the task of exploring nanotechnology.
Mike Ford is the associate director of the Institute for Nanoscale Technology at the University of Technology in Sydney.
“Nano means 10 to the [power of] minus nine metres, so that’s about one ten-thousandth of the width of a human hair,” he said.
“What we’re trying to do in nanotechnology is be able to engineer and control objects at that scale, so that’s like the scale of atoms and molecules.”
Mr Ford says nanotechnology is used in all sorts of products, some of which are used on the skin.
“Nano-scale sunscreens have been around a long time. They contain zinc oxide nano particles, which are typically 20 nanometres in diameter,” he said.
“And they’re still very, very good at absorbing UV, so [they’re] protecting you from the sun’s ultraviolet light, but they’re clear.”
The fear is that nano-particles are so small, they could be easily inhaled, or pass through the skin, possibly causing diseases in a similar way to asbestos.
‘Abundance of caution’
And Mr Ford says familiar materials are reduced to the nano-scale, they can take on a fresh personality.
“Even though they might be dealing with substances that in terms of traditional chemical safety are very well known about, when you make things nanoscopic you turn them into nano-scale objects [and] they can behave in very, very different ways,” he said.
For example, in its standard form, aluminium oxide is considered safe for dentists to use in teeth.
But when it is reduced to the nano-scale, the same substance becomes explosive, so manufacturing and handling guidelines do not properly apply to the nanoscopic form.
The assistant secretary of the ACTU, Geoff Fary, says that is putting workers at risk.
“Remember when asbestos was introduced, it was considered to be a miracle product, and it wasn’t until many years later that we found the devastating effect it had,” he said.
“There should be an abundance of caution with nanotechnology to make sure that we’re not going to reap a similar awful harvest in years to come.
“We just think it’s time to adopt the precautionary principle: stop and have a really close look at what we’re doing.”
Mr Fary says nano-scale chemicals should be classified as new chemicals, and undergo all the appropriate safety checks.
The ACTU also wants the Federal Government to introduce product labelling, to ensure consumers and workers know when they are using goods produced with the help of nanotechology.
And it wants a registry kept of all the companies using nanotechnology.
Mr Fary says the ACTU is keen to see a new regulatory framework up and running before the end of the year.
But a spokeswoman for the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Kim Carr, says while the Government is very concerned for the health and safety of workers, it will not be introducing new regulations.
She says the Government understands that nanotechnology is a rapidly emerging area and says the Government will work to keep pace.