22 Jun 2009

Australia Risks Repeat Of Asbestos Tragedy

By Georgia Miller
Although scientists and insurers are very worried that unregulated nanomaterials could be the next asbestos, our government seems blithely unconcerned, writes Georgia Miller
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has described Bernie Banton as a "great Australian hero" for his tireless campaigning for justice for asbestos victims. But despite serious warnings from scientists and risk assessors that carbon nanotubes could pose similar risks to asbestos, the Rudd Government is refusing to bring in new regulations to ensure we don't repeat the asbestos tragedy.

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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Posted Monday, June 22, 2009 - 17:52

Rudd and him mob are really Climate Deniers. They refuse to actually take any action to curb Carbon Pollution, so I have to assume that they really do NOT believe that it threatens our existence. Garrett might, but he has been effectively castrated by Rudd. Wrong Wong is very much a non-believer, probably given the portfolio to ensure that nothing happens to upset Big Business, which she has done and is working assiduously to block all progress.

So why should they think they should do anything about nanotechnology. I doubt one of them has the faintest idea of what it is. No Barry Jones in there now to educate them, he has been exiled to the far outer. And I do think that they are all anti-science. Certainly Rudd and Gillard.

As with Carbon Pollution action, it is going to be up to the People to do anything, and I would guess that it is going to be up to the People to do anything about Nanotechnology pollution.

We have elected a Government that is effectively a shill for the Big Polluters, Big Money. Not one that is concerned with ordinary people.
Just like the old one.


Posted Monday, June 22, 2009 - 19:14

A great article Georgia.

Heaven forbid that our elected government should be asleep at the wheel in this matter....

Posted Tuesday, June 23, 2009 - 17:10

What are you talking about Dazza, Rudd has been trying to bring about some change regarding the carbon pollution question but the Opposition insists on thwarting his attempts at every turn!!!!!!

Posted Tuesday, June 23, 2009 - 18:01

lynnezahra, it pains me to see such credulity and trusting faith in such poor messengers. How about actually looking at the CPRS and checking out the small print? That is, NOT through rose tinted Labour glasses.

But rusted on Labourites are pretty gullible people, all in all!


amicus curiae
Posted Wednesday, June 24, 2009 - 02:04

the carbon nanotubes issue is sounding nasty, however so is the food uses and personal care items.
Food industry is pushing hard to get it grandfathered. they see big money for less product.
There is sadly a misguided attempt to lump Colloidal Silver into the nano heading, there by taking an almost free natural antibiotic, and proven safe product off the market.
the background there is- it cannot be owned by a pharma, or patented, the FDA in its stupidity want to lump it into pesticide, as it kills bacteria..
hmm, safer than Triclosan(a registered Chemical! pesticide that FDA approves for toothpaste and mothwashes, soaps and in food wrapping??)
heres a couple of daffy items re nano food etc and the FDA comments.
Remember the fda like FSANZ does NO testing of their own, they read company supplied data and apply a rubber stamp for a lot of money!!
which is how NO GM appro has been refused either.




and back to carbon..how would you ever manage to filter and control the work areas anyway?
all the best sci fi was about using it in space! not on planet, as usual sci fi was well ahead of the game.
but hey, theres billions of us "useless eaters" they'd like to have gone....