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  Calls to protect workers from nano risks
Australian unions and industry are calling for urgent regulation to protect workers from the risks of nanotechnology, while scientists are struggling to keep up the supply of hard data.

The call comes in the wake of a recent panel discussion on nanotechnology and occupational health and safety held at Parliament House in Canberra.

The audience heard about concerns surrounding the potential risks of some nanomaterials, including carbon nanotubes, which are already used in a number of consumer products.

Previous research has found that nanotubes can behave like asbestos fibres and cause mesothelioma in laboratory animals.

In 2004, the UK-based Royal Society called for nano-versions of existing chemicals to be assessed as new chemicals.

This call was supported in the findings of a New South Wales government inquiry into nanotechnology last year.

Steve Mullins of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) wants the same.

"There are lessons to be learned from the tragedy of asbestos," Mullins told the audience.

"When dealing with nanotechnology we need to look to the past to learn from the mistakes that we've made," he says.
Full labelling

Mullins says the nanotechnology industry is growing rapidly, with its global revenue set to expand from US$32 billion to US $2.6 trillion over the next decade.

But he says there is a lack of data on the use of nanotechnology in Australia.

"We don't even know who's using it in the country at the moment. We don't even know who's bringing it into the country."

Mullins also wants a publicly accessible registry of companies dealing with nanomaterials, and full labelling, so workers know when they are working with potentially hazardous nanomaterials.

"We need data and information and if we don't have this, then we have got to question whether there should be a market at all," says Mullins.

"There needs to be a clear time frame, an urgent time frame, particularly around carbon nanotubes, but nanomaterials in general, and we haven't seen that at all.

"What is happening is the market is growing in an unregulated space and that is dangerous for workers."

"From our point of view we need regulation [to protect workers] in place by the end of this year."

Brian Power of the Australian Nano Business Forum believes 98% of nanotechnology is safe, but agrees workers should be protected from any risks.

"I'm really uncomfortable about not having controls or risk assessment in the workspace," he says.

Power agrees with Mullins' call for a company register and labelling, but emphasises Australia will ultimately have to follow international guidelines on these.
No current timelines

A spokesperson for the innovation minister Senator Kim Carr says the Government does not currently have a plan to introduce mandatory labelling or a federal registry of companies dealing with nanomaterials.

"We understand there is debate on these issues and we will continue to take part in that debate," the spokesperson says.

"There are certain aspects of the regulatory system that will potentially need amending in the future, which will require a long-term effort across multiple government agencies."
Science playing catch-up

Scientists on the panel agreed early evidence on carbon nanotubes suggests they are of concern, but some say it's too early to regulate.

"Right now we don't have sufficient information to have sensible regulation, so a lot of scientific research has to be done in this area," says Dr Maxine McCall from CSIRO.

She says researchers don't yet know how to detect and trace nanoparticles in the human body or environment.

"We don't want to have another asbestos situation, but what is the right model for us to use to assess chronic exposure?"

Dr Howard Morris from the Office of the Australian Safety and Compensation Council agrees worker exposure to nanoparticles should be limited to as low as possible while information is being gathered.

"We need to put things in place now and be proactive, even before we know anything certain about health effects," he says. "This is an opportunity for us to do it before people get sick."

But he says it is difficult to set standards for exposure in the workplace when scientists are still working out how hazardous different nanomaterials are, how to measure nanoparticle emissions and exposure levels, and how best to protect workers.
Thousands of nanoparticles

The panel audience also heard that an OECD program beginning next month will take two years to develop safety tests on 14 priority nanoparticles.

Versions of these particles with different sizes, shapes and surface coatings will need to be assessed separately as these characteristics affect the toxicity of a nanoparticle.

Toxicologist Dr Paul Wright of RMIT University says there are "thousands upon thousands" of new nanomaterials being developed, and a new approach called "predictive modelling" is needed to practically assess the safety of these en masse.

Scientists on the panel said they hoped that in 5 or 10 years modelling could also be used to design new nanoparticles with safer characteristics.

Meanwhile the ACTU's Steve Mullins says a precautionary approach should be taken.

"If we think it's dangerous, treat it as dangerous," he says.

The panel was organised by the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies and sponsored by the Australian Office of Nanotechnology.
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