ELEANOR HALL: The ABC’s revelations that some sunscreen brands are inaccurately promoting themselves as nanotechnology-free have prompted calls for better regulation of nano-materials.
But the push for a mandatory register has suffered a blow, with a Federal Government report labelled it ‘questionable’.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions is among those calling for a register, saying the potential risks posed by nano-particles are still unknown.
Rachel Carbonell has our report.
RACHEL CARBONELL: Nanotechnology is the science of reducing the size of particles to just billionths of a metre.
Nano-particles can be found in many products and materials, such as sunscreen, cosmetics, food and clothing.
The Federal Government recently released a study it commissioned to look at the feasibility of a mandatory nanotechnology product register.
And this is what it concluded:
VOICEOVER: It is clear that some nano-materials behave differently to bulk form materials and there are associated health, safety and environmental risks. However the challenge presented by nanotechnology can be met through existing regulatory frameworks. It is therefore difficult to see a nano-products register delivering a net benefit to the community. The feasibility of a nano-product registry is questionable.
RACHEL CARBONELL: But groups pushing for a register disagree.
Renata Musolino works in occupational health and safety at the Victorian Trades Hall Council and represents the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) on nanotechnology forums.
RENATA MUSOLINO: Workers have a fundamental right to know what they’re working with. With nanotechnology they don’t. So employers could be bringing materials into the workplace, and probably are, that contain nano-materials and they have no idea and therefore that means they have no idea about what controls they could be putting in place, about ensuring that exposure is either minimised or if possible there is no exposure.
Because we know that in the long term, it’s happened with many other substances before, they have effects and they can take 20, 30, 40 years.
We say you should take a precautionary approach.
RACHEL CARBONELL: The feasibility report points to the challenge of ensuring safety without stifling innovation, saying that nanotechnology is potentially worth $50 billion a year to the Australian economy.
Renata Musolino says the right balance hasn’t yet be struck.
RENATA MUSOLINO: We don’t want to panic people and I would also agree that we don’t want to stifle innovation. However, it doesn’t mean that you just don’t tell people and I think that it could backfire.
A register is one aspect that would provide information not only to workers but to the public.
RACHEL CARBONELL: Unions are already concerned about the use of carbon nano-tubes in building materials.
RENATA MUSOLINO: At the moment, carbon in its bulk form is non-hazardous, therefore it doesn’t specifically get captured under our hazardous substance regs, therefore you don’t actually have to provide, if you’re a supplier or an employer, you don’t have to provide a safety datasheet on it
I can’t tell you with certainty what workplaces are using carbon nano-tubes, but carbon nano-tubes – it’s not only maybe hazardous, there’s been enough now to show that they are hazardous. That they elicit the same sort of response in lungs as asbestos fibres do.
RACHEL CARBONELL: And Renata Musolino says other safety concerns for workers are also emerging.
RENATA MUSOLINO: A European Union body has just done a literature review and found exactly the same thing; that safety datasheets and labels are not providing the right information for workplaces to be able to implement controls.
RACHEL CARBONELL: Gregory Crocetti from Friends of the Earth says a New South Wales Parliamentary Inquiry recommended in 2008 that a mandatory register be established.
GREGORY CROCETTI: The mandatory register would mean that we can effectively identify what the materials are and that we can manage these new health risks that they pose.
Just last week there was a study that was released that identified a brand new mode of nano-toxicity called citrullination that we’d never previously heard of before.
RACHEL CARBONELL: And what did that study point to in terms of potential health effects?
GREGORY CROCETTI: This new study found that the exposure, to human and mice cells at least, of various types of nano-particles, could be linked to the development of rheumatoid arthritis and other serious auto-immune diseases.
RACHEL CARBONELL: Dr Crocetti says existing regulators are not adequately addressing the potential risks of nano-particles.
GREGORY CROCETTI: The vast majority of nano-materials do not require any safety assessments. So this means that right now there are literally hundreds of products on supermarket shelves in Australia and in our workplaces that contain unregulated and untested nano-materials.
RACHEL CARBONELL: The feasibility report acknowledges the current arrangements aren’t perfect but says increased funding for nano safety research could be a more effective way of addressing community concerns without stifling innovation.
No-one from the Government was available to be interviewed but a spokesman for the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science and Research said the report is being considered by the Government as part of a broader range of issues relating to the oversight of nanotechnology.
ELEANOR HALL: Rachel Carbonell reporting.