The Government's rejection of the need for new nanotechnology safety measures may come as a shock to Australians keenly aware of the massive human cost of asbestos.
Asbestos was once considered a "miracle" material. In Australia, it was used in everything from building materials to brake pads to oven mitts.
Along with the United Kingdom, we now suffer the highest rate of mesothelioma in the world. Research by British professor of epidemiology Peter Julian Peto suggests that as many as 25 per cent of all Australian lung cancers could be attributable to asbestos. By the middle of this century, Peto estimates that up to 30,000 Australians will have died from asbestos-related disease. New waves of victims continue to emerge.
The asbestos tragedy serves as a cautionary tale — not just of the dangers of blind faith in "miracle" materials and of ignoring early warning signs of harm, but also of corporate greed. One of the most chilling images from the asbestos victims' campaign for just treatment is a simple poster — "James Hardie knew".
The ACTU says there is evidence that James Hardie knew of the dangers in the 1930s, but that it failed to issue warnings or directions on its products until 1978. The Australian government didn't ban asbestos in all workplaces until 2004.
At first glance the emerging high-tech field of nanotechnology — the "science of the small" — has little to do with the 20th century disaster of asbestos. But there are growing fears that carbon nanotubes, extremely small cylinders made of carbon atoms, not only look just like asbestos fibres, but could also present similar health hazards.
Last week, scientists told the ABC's 7.30 Report that action on carbon nanotubes is needed to avoid a repeat of the asbestos experience. They backed calls from the ACTU and the Australian NanoBusiness Forum for mandatory labelling and registration.
Associate professor Paul Wright, nanotoxicologist and director of Nanosafe Australia told the 7.30 Report that: "Any nanomaterial that behaves in a similar way to asbestos is a nanomaterial of concern, and that's something that we should control and regulate ... [Carbon nanotubes] should get their own labelling."
This week, US investors warned that disturbing parallels existed between health risks associated with nanotechnology and asbestos, and weak regulations governing disclosure and that these parallels could leave nanotechnology companies exposed to billions of dollars in litigation risks. A top Australian work safety lawyer has previously issued a similar warning.
But in response to the ACTU's calls for a mandatory register and labelling of all commercially used nanomaterials, a spokeswoman for the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Kim Carr, has said that "while the Government is very concerned for the health and safety of workers, it will not be introducing new regulations".
Carbon nanotubes are a modern-day "miracle" material. Frequently described as "100 times stronger than steel and six times lighter", carbon nanotubes are also incredibly good conductors of electricity. They are used in growing numbers of electronics, reinforced plastics, specialty building materials and sports goods manufactured internationally. They are touted for future use in capacitors, pharmaceuticals, solar cells and in defence applications.
But five years ago, scientists from the United Kingdom's highly regarded Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, and risk experts at the world's second-largest reinsurance company, Swiss Re, warned that because carbon nanotubes share many physical properties with asbestos they may also present similar health risks.
Swiss Re put it bluntly: "... some nanotubes are similar in size and form to asbestos fibres. The supposition that the potential for harm could be similar would appear to be obvious".
Since 2004, a series of animal studies has demonstrated that carbon nanotubes can cause lung inflammation, granuloma development, fibrosis, artery "plaque" responsible for heart attacks, DNA damage and immune system dysfunction.
Last year, two independent studies (see here and here) showed that some forms of carbon nanotubes can also cause mesothelioma. One of the studies found that more mice died from mesothelioma following exposure to carbon nanotubes compared to those exposed to the most potent form of asbestos.
Nanotubes are handled in laboratories across Australia, where research, administrative, cleaning and maintenance staff face potential exposure. It is possible that carbon nanotubes are already used commercially in Australian manufacturing, although it is impossible for the public — or affected workers — to know how or where they may be exposed.
There is currently no legal requirement to label products in which carbon nanotubes are used or for companies to notify workers who may face occupational exposure. There is literally no way for Australian workers to know whether or not carbon nanotubes are being used in their workplace, let alone whether their employer has taken mitigation measures.
As with other nanomaterials there is no known "safe" level of exposure to carbon nanotubes. As with asbestos, it is possible that any level of occupational exposure to nanotubes poses health hazards. Incredibly, however, there are legal exposure benchmarks for other far less toxic forms of carbon, like synthetic graphite.
Tom Faunce, Associate Professor in the Australian National University's law and medical schools, told the 7.30 Report: "We have to start moving towards developing those safety standards in the work place. If we don't, then a similar tragedy to asbestos awaits us, and that really would show that we haven't learnt anything."
There are two key lessons from the asbestos tragedy — the need for precaution in the face of early warning signs of harm, and the need for transparency in corporate conduct.
Friends of the Earth believes that we should halt the commercial production and sale of carbon nanotubes until further research can identify whether or not any levels of nanotube exposure can be deemed safe, appropriate permissible exposure levels are determined and enforced, and there is mandatory disclosure to affected workers.
There is growing agreement between unions, the nanotechnology industry, nanotoxicologists, insurance agents, investors and NGOs that urgent precautionary measures are required for carbon nanotubes. The asbestos experience has demonstrated that industry cannot be relied upon to initiate these measures. Government regulation of nanotechnology is urgently required if we are to avoid a repeat of the asbestos tragedy.
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