Don’t be green on nano dangers

Nanotechnology has a very polished public relations machine. It will, we are told, save our lives, clean our windows and clear up our toxic waste.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies even has a whole GreenNano theme, that “aims to advance development of clean technologies using nanotechnology, to minimise potential environmental and human health risks associated with the manufacture and use of nanotechnology products, and to encourage replacement of existing products with new nano products that are more environmentally friendly throughout their lifecycle.”

There’s one little hiccup. We don’t know the nature of the environmental and human health risks, but we are exposing the population and the planet to novel, virtually unregulated and a largely untested dizzying array of products anyway.

The latest signal everything in nanoworld may not be entirely healthy came this week from the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive. Carbon nanotubes (CNT) may cause serious diseases, but a lack of adequate information means safety datasheets are likely to be of little or no use, the safety watchdog suggests.

Risk management of carbon nanotubes notes: “The toxicity of CNTs has not yet been fully investigated. However it is clear that Safety Data Sheets for CNTs that are based on conventional graphite or graphene will NOT provide suitable adequate information to assess the risk from CNTs.” The guide advises: “Since there is uncertainty about the risks of being exposed to CNTs, the regulatory and safe response is to take a precautionary approach.”

According to HSE: “Emerging data indicates that when CNTs are breathed in they can cause lung inflammation and fibrosis… It is also not clear if inhaled CNT have a role in the development of adverse health effects at other sites in the body. There is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that CNTs and other nanomaterials with a long, thin and straight shape (referred to as high aspect ratio nanomaterials or HARN) may be particularly hazardous. However, there are insufficient data to confirm the health consequences of long-term repeated exposure.”

The HSE guide adds there is “some evidence” CNTs “may be able to provoke inflammatory reactions in the skin.” It concludes:  “In view of the evidence for lung damage and lack of information on the effects of long-term repeated exposure a high level of control is warranted for CNTs.”

Simon Pickvance, an occupational health specialist based at Sheffield University in the UK, criticised HSE’s “passivity.” He said: “HSE should take a positive role as the guarantor of the quality of safety datasheets. If the information on datasheets cannot be relied on, then they are more dangerous than informative. Neither HSE nor chemical firms should be operating a cross-your-fingers-and-hope version of risk assessment.”

It’s a line supported by unions across Europe. On 1 December 2010, the executive committee of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) adopted a second resolution on Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies.  It says the intention of the resolution, which came out of an October 2010 seminar on nano risks, is to secure protection of workers potentially exposed to nanomaterials, and calls for adherence to the “no data, no market” principle.

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