The Greens have accused both major parties of not doing enough to ensure proper regulation of the booming nanotechnology industry.
The Greens are worried about the lack of safeguards and public information about nanomaterials.
They say they will make it mandatory for them to be declared publicly.
But the Federal Government rejects the suggestion that safety regulations have been left behind by the emerging industry.
In nanotechnology, size does matter. It is what gives materials new properties and makes them more reactive, opening up an area of innovation which can be applied to nearly any product.
Greens Senate candidate in New South Wales, Lee Rhiannon, says it is an area of innovation which has left regulation far behind.
She says the public health concerns are huge.
“They’re used in many parts of our daily lives where we can come in contact with them – with cosmetics, paints, even building equipment, possibly with clothes,” she said.
“They’re starting to be used in textiles and also cleaning products.”
Ms Rhiannon wants all nanomaterials in use in Australia to be declared in a mandatory public register.
“We need more public information and it needs to be readily accessible,” she said.
“This is a new science. It really is quite a booming industry that’s starting to dominate many aspects of our lives, so therefore we need to ensure that the products are safe.”
The coordinator of a nationwide research network called NanoSafe Australia, Immunotoxicologist Paul Wright, says there is a global effort underway to work out the safety boundaries for nanotechnology.
“If at first the particle can get into the body and then if it does persist in the body, the actual effects that could be caused really depend on the material itself – what compounds are in it,” he said.
“Some compounds are of more concern than others, so that is why there is an international effort to look at nanomaterials.
“The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has a working party on manufactured nanomaterials.”
Professor Wright says there are about 1,000 products already on the market where nano ingredients are openly declared.
He says most companies which use nanomaterials do so responsibly, but some safety regulations may need to be updated.
“In any group of people, you will always have a small proportion of cowboys or irresponsible people,” he said.
“So we do have to make sure we have the regulations that are appropriate to reduce the chances of something seriously going wrong with people doing the wrong thing in manufacturing.
“I think the regulatory gaps will be plugged very soon appropriately.”
The Greens are not the first to push for a register of nanomaterials. The Australian Council of Trade Unions has also suggested it.
But Professor Wright says making public disclosure mandatory would be risky.
“I do agree with more information being out there. My biggest concern is the way that that information might be misused,” he said.
“So if you slap a sticker on something saying that, well, this contains nanomaterials, does that automatically mean the public will shy away from it?”
Environment group Friends of Earth has been pressuring political parties to outline their plans for nanotechnology regulation.
The group’s nanotechnology project co-ordinator, Georgia Miller, says neither the Coalition nor the Labor Party have responded.
The Industry and Innovation Minister, Kim Carr, says nanotechnology creates new challenges for regulation, but the current regime is well-placed to deal with them.
Senator Carr rejects the proposal for a register of nanomaterials.
“We want to make sure that we have safe products at the same time we’re able to revolutionise the way in which industry is able to produce products,” he said.
“[We want to] produce new processes that make Australia more competitive internationally.”
Last year Australia’s food standards regulator changed the rules for food manufacturers.
Foods with novel nano-particles in them now have to undergo a safety assessment.
The Coalition’s industry spokeswoman Sophie Mirabella was unavailable for comment.
By Simon Lauder