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Nanotechnology and Worker Safety

Posted Jan. 30, 2009 / Posted by: RConnors

WorkshopsToday our World Social Forum workshop focused on nanotechnology and worker safety. We listened to Brazilian worker union representatives and worker safety specialist who talked to the audience about the many risks involved in working with nanoparticles.  Carbon nanotubes, for example, have been shown to cause similar damage to asbestos in the lungs -- asbestos causes Mesothelioma and leads to deadly cancer. Workers are not outfitted with appropriate safeguards when they come into contact with these materials.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has been monitoring companies who manufacture nanoparticles to try and understand how workers may be exposed to these materials and how to protect them against the possible dangers. Yet, because we have such little experience in dealing with nanoparticles, NIOSH's guidance on the matter is pretty much nonexistent.

Meanwhile workers are coming into contact with these materials daily, and to make the situation even worse, the money invested by our government to support this type of research is less then 1% of the overall $1.5 Billion yearly budget that goes into nanotechnology research and development. Rick Weiss wrote an excellent article in the Washington Post on the issue of nanotechnology and worker safety.

I mentioned in my talk today that this week Canada decided to become the first government in the world to require companies to report their use of nanoparticles and require other related information such as types and quantities of nanoparticles used and toxicity data. During the week we were contacted by journalists in North America asking our opinion on the matter. I told journalists that while we applaud Canada for taking the first step in the regulation of nanotechnology—this action is barely something to write home about. For years scientists and experts have been calling for strong regulation and oversight of nanomaterials in consumer products, including the UK’s Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering and just recently the Austrian Ministry of Health. Our fear is that government is still not moving quick enough to safeguard consumer, workers and the environment.

BridgeWe understand that it takes time to create regulation, but while governments get their act together, why does the public and especially workers have to suffer the potential consequences with hundreds of nano-products already on the market? That's why Friends of the Earth is calling for a moratorium on the commercialization of all nano products until nano-specific safety laws are established and the public is involved in decision making.

Towards the end of the day I was interviewed once more by a film crew from Quebec, which has been filming our work here at the forum and other activities that are connected to the World Science and Democracy Forum. I talked about regulatory agencies in the United States that are supposed to be protecting our health and the health of the environment (Food and Drug Administration FDA, Environmental Protection Agency EPA, etc.) but instead are doing very little to safeguard our health from risky nanoparticles. This situation has encouraged us at Friends of the Earth to support a legal petition to the EPA submitted by our colleagues at the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA). This petition demands EPA regulate nano-silver (please send EPA your comments). A couple of years ago we also worked with ICTA on the first ever legal petition on nanotechnology (cosmetics and personal care products) that we submitted to the FDA -- the agency has yet to respond and take action.

Governments worldwide are lacking a clear view of the big picture when it comes to nanotechnology. This technology has the potential to dramatically change society and our lives -- public deliberation and decision making is essential if we want to ensure nanotechnology is not thrust upon us with the sole purpose of creating corporate profits.

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