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NANOTECHNOLOGY: Questions and Answers
Hazards asked Jim Thomas of the action group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) these questions about the safety of nanotechnology:1. Is there evidence of a workplace risk at this time? Have we got a possible asbestos for the 21st century on our hands? Or are workers being exposed to substances that may or may not in a generation be revealed to have been causes of chronic disease? Read Jim's answer
2. Are existing laws, risk assessment/management strategies and health and safety enforcement regimes up to the job? Read Jim's answer
3. What action should the government and its safety enforcement agency, the Health and Safety Executive, be taking at this time? Read Jim's answer
4. Anything else you think HSE and trade unions should be hearing
Read Jim's answer
1. Hazards Is there evidence of a workplace risk at this time? Have we got a possible asbestos for the 21stcentury on our hands? Or are workers being exposed to substances that may or may not in a generation be revealed to have been causes of chronic disease?
Jim Thomas Thanks to air pollution studies on ultrafine particles we actually have more toxicity studies on nanoparticles than would be expected for a new technology and the bulk of them raise red flags.
We know size and shape change the toxicity from how it is previously characterised and generally particles become more bioactive at the nanoscale. We know that particles under a certain size can cross the skin and the lung and travel around the body without challenge.
We know nanoparticles can sometimes cross the blood brain barrier and possibly the placenta and in some cases can enter into the nucleii of cells.
We know of specific risks - eg the photocatalytic titanium dioxide nanoparticles of the sort that are being applied to Pilkington self cleaning windows produce large amounts of free radicals and can damage DNA if they get into skin cells. (see Dunford, Salinaro et al 1997) I know nothing of Pilkingtons worker safety measures in their glass factories in St Helens but I'm confident the glass industry is not regulated to protect workers' skin from nanoparticles.
In effect what we are doing is creating hundreds and ultimately thousands of new species of materials with new properties at a scale where those materials can move about in unprecedented ways.
For those charged with risk elimination to merely cross their fingers, make optimistic noises and wait a few more years for the research to roll in seems a sure fire recipe for disaster.
2. Hazards: Are existing laws, risk assessment/ management strategies and health and safety enforcement regimes up to the job?
Jim Thomas: Despite the existence of a multi billion dollar market, no regulations anywhere in the world account for the changed character of materials at the nanoscale. For example Carbon nanotubes and buckyballs are regarded as graphite even though they have entirely different properties. In the eyes of the law regulating nanomaterials are a bit like regulating dragons - they simply don't exist and if one should happen to get caught up in a safety net it will be by lucky accident rather than design.
3. Hazards What action should the government and its safety enforcement agency, the Health and Safety Executive, be taking at this time?
Jim Thomas ETC Group has repeatedly called for a moratorium on research, handling and production of engineered nanoparticles based on the proper application of the precautionary principle. Such a moratorium needn't last long but there are some clear steps that urgently need to be sorted out.
Firstly, the scientific community along with health and safety agencies should use the moratorium to establish agreed protocols for safe handling of nanomaterials - ensuring worker and environmental safety. Some of this is now happening at NIOSH and HSE but to continue allowing nanoparticle work in the absence of such best practices endangers worker and environmental safety.
Secondly, basic agreement needs to be reached on how to assess the toxicology of new nanomaterials. No models currently exist for this and a lot of the basic science is missing.
No new nanoparticle based products should be placed on the market until not only strong consumer safety regulations are in place but also mechanisms for assessing the societal, livelihood and cultural implications of these products.
ETC group has called for an international framework to govern asessment
of new technologies in a manner that will properly account for the concerns,
values and expertise of the public and those who are usually marginalised
from such decisions - eg. women, the poor, workers, the disabled, rural
and indigenous communities. We call this ICENT (International Convention
for Evaluation of New Technologies)- questions of safety and acceptable
risk would form a part of that.
4. Hazards Anything else you think HSE and trade unions should be hearing
Thus not only is a 50nm titaniumdioxide crystal different from a 500nm
crystal. Its also different from a 20nm crystal and a 10nm crystal - also
a rutile crystal behaves differently from an anatase crystal (needlike
vs square) which in turn behaves differently if you coat it with silica.
Any toxicity regulations for nanomaterials will need to capture this complexity.
DNA is being modified and rebuilt as a scaffold for new nanostructures. Proteins, prions, viruses, bacteria and other components of living systems are being altered to exhibit new functions and in this realm questions of self assembly and reproduction become very important - while concerns about grey goo have been wisely set aside, concerns about self assembling and reproducing enginineered living nanostructures, green goo if you like, should not be overlooked.
For Trade Unions:
Predictably, as is the history of many new technologies driven by the worlds most powerful and best capitalised companies, most of the innovations associated with this new technology wave will do little for the poor or those already vulnerable in the global economy.
Many of the projected applications of nanotechnology aim at producing efficiencies that will reduce or replace the need for skilled labour and human expertise (eg. the self cleaning window example).
Wide area wireless sensor networks are expected in industries as diverse as energy and agriculture to automate functions carried out by skilled workers: nanosensors on fields or in herds will replace the need to scout crops and will control automatic water and feeding operations replacing farm labour.
Nanosensors across the energy grid will allow remote monitoring of substations, pylons and wires.
Nanosensors and automatic nanodelivery systems built into the body are anticipated to replace the need for skilled carers to administer drugs to elderly or disabled.
More significantly new nanomaterials will replace the need for extraction of raw materials (eg carbon nanotubes are stronger than steel, can be produced in a factory with very low labour needs) and self assembly techniques will reduce need for labour in production even further.
While public concern about nanotechnology, like genetic engineering before it, is likely to first crytallise around health and safety concerns, the biggest harm to workers from the nano-revolution is likely to be economic harm as whole industries are upended and made irrelevant and trained smart people are replaced with patented smart materials.
Personally I believe one can expect the first deaths from nanotechnology to be economic deaths as the nanotechnology wave hits the poorest and most vulnerable in global society and workers, small farmers and those traditionally denied power are displaced in the turbulence.
More information: www.etcgroup.org
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