Nanotechnology - a new hazard

Nanotechnology is the generic name given to the production or use of very small, or ‘nano’ particles. These are particles that are less than one hundred nanometres or about one thousandth the width of a human hair. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre.


Nanotechnology is likely to be extremely important in the future as it allows materials to be built up atom by atom. This can lead to the development of new materials that are better suited for their purpose. There are several branches of nanotechnology, but most of them are in an early stage.
It is an area for which there is no regulation in Australia.  Companies are under no obligation to even notify any government authority if they import, use or manufacture nanomaterials.
The potential effects of nanomaterials on worker health and that of the general community, as well as on the environment, are largely unknown.

The only nanotechnologies that are commercially available at present are ultra fine powders and coatings, although this is changing all the time. These are used in a variety of products including sunscreens, self-cleaning glass, and textiles - but the list of materials being developed commercially using nanotechnology is growing at a very fast rate.  For example, there have been recent media reports of research into the use of nanoparticles to treat dental cavities.  In July 2007, theProject on Emerging Technologies(based at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars)  had found over 500 commercially available products with nanoparticles.  Thelistis updated regularly, and can be searched by product or country.

Other forms of nanotechnology being developed include tiny sensors called nano-units, of which some simple types are available; 'smart materials' that change in response to light or heat; 'nano-bots' - tiny mobile robots that have yet to be developed but are theoretically possible; and self-assembling nano-materials that can be assembled into larger equipment. These are being developed at the moment.

Nanotechnology is already a huge industry with billions of dollars being spent on research and development worldwide.  There is still a great deal to learn about both the potential benefits and risks of the technology. Nevertheless, most experts agree that the use of nanotechnology in electronics, the pharmaceutical industry and in areas such as medical imaging is outstripping our understanding of the OHS risks.

Nanotechnology could lead to significant developments in medicine, manufacturing and computing. However it may also bring significant new health hazards.

What are the possible dangers of nanotechnology?

Although most of the press coverage has been on the dangers of 'nano-goo' such as self-replicating particles that get out of control, or 'nano-robots', the real risks are much more simple, and real.The miniature size of nanomaterials and the way their surfaces are modified to increase the ease with which they can interact with biological systems - the very characteristics that make them attractive for applications in medicine and industry - makes nanomaterials potentially damaging for humans and the environment. 

Nanoparticles are likely to be dangerous for three main reasons.

  1. Nanoparticles may damage the lungs. We know that 'ultra fine' particles from diesel machines, power plants and incinerators can cause considerable damage to human lungs. This is both because of their size (as they can get deep into the lungs) and also because they carry other chemicals including metals and hydrocarbons in with them.
  2. Nanoparticles can get into the body through the skin, lungs and digestive system. This may help create 'free radicals' which can cause cell damage and damage to the DNA. There is also concern that once nanoparticles are in the bloodstream they will be able to cross the blood-brain barrier.
  3. The human body has developed a tolerance to most naturally occurring elements and molecules that it has contact with. It has no natural immunity to new substances and is more likely to find them toxic.
The danger of contact with nanoparticles is not just speculation. As more research is undertaken, concerns increase. Here are some of the recent findings:

  • some nanoparticles do cause lung damage in rats. Several studies have shown that carbon nanotubes, which are similar in shape to asbestos fibres, cause mesothelioma in the lungs of rats (see below)
  • other nanoparticles have been shown to lead to brain damage in fish and dogs
  • a German study found clear evidence that if discrete nanometer diameter particles were deposited in the nasal region (in rodents in this case), they completely circumvented the blood/brain barrier, and travelled up the olfactory nerves straight into the brain
  • inhaled carbon nanotubes can suppress the immune system by affecting the function of T cells, a type of white blood cell that organises the immune system to fight infections.
According to the USA'a Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars chief science advisor (speaking at a conference organised by the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists - AIOH), Dr Andrew Maynard, 'Whether [the research] is relevant to humans we're not sure yet. But it does indicate nanometer-size particles and nano-structured materials behave in different ways to what we're used to.' One of the big problems is that it's impossible to know whether a product or substance contains nanoparticles, as current legislation does not require these to be labelled.

The US government safety research body NIOSH has produced a guide (see below) which states nanomaterials may interact with the human body in different ways than more conventional materials, due to their extremely small size. For example, studies have established that the comparatively large surface area of inhaled nanoparticles can increase their toxicity. Such small particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and may move to other parts of the body, including the liver and brain. 
NIOSH's Nanotechnology Research Centre (NTRC), has also released an interim reportProgress Towards Safe Nanotechnology in the Workplace [pdf] (Feb 2007). The NTRC was established to coordinate and facilitate research in nanotechnology and develop guidance on the safe handling of nanomaterials in the workplace. The report identifies 10 critical OHS areas and reports on the advancements to date. The areas include toxicity and internal dose -determined heart and lung responses to nanoparticles; risk assessment; epidemiology and surveillance - developing guidance for nanotechnology employers and workers on how to implement OHS surveillance programs in the workplace; engineering controls and PPE; and measurement methods.

As hazardous as asbestos?

A major study published inNature Nanotechnologyin May 2008 suggests some forms of carbon nanotubes could be as harmful as asbestos if inhaled in sufficient quantities.  The study used established methods to see if specific types of nanotubes have the potential to cause mesothelioma.  The results show that long, thin multi-walled carbon nanotubes that look like asbestos fibres, behave like asbestos fibres.  The study shows there is strong evidence that if carbon nanotubes get into the wrong place, they can cause mesothelioma.  Still unanswered questions are whether exposure to the material will actually occur, whether people can breathe it in, and if they do, whether these fibres can work their way to the outer edge of the lung and then cause an effect.
For more information on the study, go to the website of theInternational Council on Nanotechnology. Friends of the Earth has producedcommenton the studies, and a June 2009articlein the online magazinenewmatilda.

Australian news:
Safe Work Australia in June 2011, released a research report,Durability of carbon nanotubes and their potential to cause inflammation. The report considered the durability of carbon nanotubes and the tendency to cause lung inflammation if inhaled, two indicators of potential asbestos-like behaviour.  Carbon nano-tubes are already being used in a number of different applications.

Key findings in the report include:

  • Some types of carbon nanotubes can be durable, but others may also break down in simulated lung fluid.

  • Carbon nanotubes of certain length and aspect ratio can induce asbestos-like responses in mice, confirming previous findings. However, this response may be reduced if the nanotubes are less durable.

  • tightly agglomerated particle-like bundles of carbon nanotubes did not cause an inflammatory response in mice.

The importance of prevention

At the moment no one knows for certain how dangerous the many different types of nanoparticles are likely to be to humans. However it is important that we do not allow workers to be exposed to an unknown danger where effects may not be known for years, even decades.

These risks were highlighted in a report from the UK's Royal Society which said'nanotechnology offers many potential benefits, but its development must be guided by appropriate safety assessments and regulation to minimise any possible risks to people and the environment.'It also called for a tightening up of regulations.

The UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution -Novel Materials in the Environment: The case of nanotechnology, which released its report in November 2008, states that nanomaterials are likely to kill people in the future just as asbestos did unless extensive safety checks are put in place. The team of experts assessing the likely impacts of the emerging technology expressed concerns that when nanomaterials escape into the environment they will damage people and wildlife - but that it will be years before the effects are seen. Past generations have brought into general usage materials such as asbestos, leaded petrol, CFCs and cigarettes without adequately considering the potential damage and the commission fears nanomaterials will prove similarly dangerous.

The insurance company, Swiss Re has already been quoted as warning that the uncertainty about the risks that nanotechnology and nano-pollution pose means that they currently will not offer insurance to the industry.

There has been very little attention paid to nanotechnology in Australia.  Unions made a number of submissions to a Senate inquiry intoWorkplace Exposure to Toxic Dusts that raised the emerging issue of nanotechnology in Australia.  The VTHC, together with the ACTU and our union affiliates is calling on government to use its existing capabilities and authorities, or develop new ones as needed, to ensure that the risks of nanomaterials are identified before they are incorporated into products for commercial production.

Employers should take a precautionary approach and ensure that workers are not exposed to nanoparticles. This is the advice given by the UK government, which adds that  'as the risks arising from exposure to many types of nanoparticles are not yet completely understood, control strategies should be based on a principle of reducing exposure as much as possible.'

For unions that means seeking to ensure that the production and use of nanoparticles is done within a contained process so that employees are not exposed to any potential unknown risk. Nanomaterials should be treated just like any other serious health risk.

It is important that unions act now to ensure that we do not have a re-run of the asbestos tragedy where hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to a killer dust that even today kills many thousands of people a year.  On September 19, 2007, the ACTU and its affiiates signed up to the internationalDeclaration on the Principles for the Oversight of Nanotechnologies and Nanomaterials.  The declaration identifies eight fundamental principles for the effective oversight and assessment of nanotechnology, including mandatory government regulation. It can be downloaded at thebottomof this page.

In June of 2008, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) adopted its first resolution on nanotechnology and nanomaterials: that the precautionary principle must apply. The resolution states: 'nanometre forms of chemicals should not be allowed on the market unless sufficient data are supplied to show no harmful effect for human health and the environment.' It adds that risk reduction measures must be used and employers must involve workers and their representatives in the assessment and reduction of nanomaterial-related risks. Other measures called for by ETUC include training and health surveillance for workers exposed to nanomaterials, at least 15 per cent of public research budgets on nanotech to be dedicated to health and environmental aspects and for workplace health and safety to be included in all research programmes.Statement andResolution

Government initiatives

The Federal Government has recently established a National Nanotechnology Strategy Taskforce under the auspices of the Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources (DITR).  The Office of the Australian Safety and Compensation Council is preparing a brief for the taskforce which will cover:
  • details of research and other activities - recently undertaken, current and planned;
  • a critical review of substantial work done. This will include input from nanotechnology scientific expertise to ensure the scope of the review is relevant and covers current technologies;
  • a synthesis of the current state of knowledge in the area relevant to OH&S, and relevant to the workplaces in Australian industries; and
  • identification of key gaps in knowledge and areas where further research may be targeted.
The National Nanotechnology Strategy Taskforce has established awebsite outlining the work of the taskforce, and featuring some key links.
The ASCC in August 2006 released its report on theReview of the Potential Occupational Health and Safety Implications of Nanotechnology.  The report states: 'The distinctive and oftentimes unique properties which are observed with nanoparticles have been proposed to revolutionise manufacturing and consuming in the future - much as the industrial revolution did in the late 18thand early 19thcenturies' and 'At this early stage the potential applications of nanoparticles seem to be limited only by the imagination'. 
It concludes that '[t]he occupational health and safety effects of engineered nanoscale particles are mostly unknown,' while acknowledging however, that 'findings from animal and in vitro test systems have provided some valuable information and these results indicate that human and environmental health consequences are possible from nanoparticle use and exposure.'
The report recommends addressing the 'greatest gaps in our current knowledge' as a matter of priority, namely:
  • developing cost-effective and robust ambient air monitoring systems to provide accurate information on worker exposures
  • setting priorities to acquire the necessary information for the determination of meaningful workplace exposure standards and adequate worker protection.
  • undertaking chronic exposure studies in order to generate information on the long-term health effects
A recent publication from NSW WorkCover,Nanotechnology: OHS overview  [pdf], sums up some of the concerns.  It calls for a more proactive approach to regulating public and worker safety when it comes to nanotech. The paper points out that the pace of the industry's development means OHS researchers and regulators already lag behind. Some of the points in the paper:
  • Existing regulations do not sufficiently cover nanotechnology.
  • Current OHS risk management processes do not readily apply because of the different structures and behaviours of nanoparticles
  • So, there is no guarantee that existing safe work practices will transfer to nanotech.
  • There is a crucial gap because OHS regulations focus on the chemical composition rather than the size or surface area, such as is the case with nanoparticles.
  • However an effective gap analysis of how existing legislation applies to nanotech will not be possible until further knowledge of measurement procedures and exposure levels is gained.

In July, Senator the Hon Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research released two documents:

  1. The Australian Government Approach to the Responsible Management of Nanotechnology[pdf]: identifies objectives to guide government agencies, including regulators and policy makers in their decision making process and policy development for nanotechnology.
  2. The independent report,A review of possible impacts of nanotechnology on Australia's regulatory framework[pdf]: commissioned by the Australian Office of Nanotechnology to assess the adequacy of nanotechnology regulation and produced by the Centre for Regulatory Studies at Monash University.  

In August, the Government  released theAustralian Community Attitudes Held about Nanotechnology – Trends 2005-2008  [pdf]  report.  There is also asummary of the key points[pdf] of the public attitude study.

In Europe

Nanotechnologies are expected to make a major contribution to improving the quality of the life of European citizens, in particular in sectors such as material sciences, health care, information technology, and the environment. In view of their growing importance, the European Commission has developed a strategy for nanotechnologies[pdf], which was endorsed in the Conclusions of the Council of the European Union of 24 September 2004 [pdf], and the Commission’s action plan“Nanosciences and nanotechnologies: An action plan for Europe 2005-2009”[pdf] recognized the need for a safe, integrated and responsible approach to the development of nanotechnologies.

In response to a request from the Commission, the independent experts of the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) recently adopted an opinion on "the appropriateness of existing methodologies to assess the potential risks associated with engineered and adventitious products of nanotechnologies."[pdf]. 
The European Commission has a Nanotechnologyinformation site - including a sub-site  Nanotechnologies-providing answers to a number of frequently asked questions.

More Information

Nanotechnology - further reading and references.  There is an ever-increasing body of information out there as more research is being done in the area of nanotechnology.
Acknowledgement: some of the information sourced from the TUC Fact Sheet on Nanotechnology.
Last amended June 2009