AWU leader Paul Howes

Fine line … AWU's Paul Howes wants research. Photo: Louie Douvis

Union leader Paul Howes has likened nanotechnology to asbestos and called for more research to ease fears the growing use of fine particles could endanger manufacturing workers.

''I don't want to make the mistake that my predecessors made by not worrying about asbestos,'' the Australian Workers' Union national secretary said.

Substances called nanomaterials - measuring between one and 100 nanometres, a fraction of the width of a human hair - are used to make products such as non-scratching car wax, some types of paint, lighter sporting equipment, and self-cleaning coatings for glass and building materials.

Scientists believe nanotechnology holds the potential to improve water purification, medical treatments, solar power efficiency, engineering manufacturing processes and security screening.

While the national science agency CSIRO says nanomaterials can be useful because they often have different properties from larger particles of the same substance, it is also researching whether some nanomaterials may harm human health and the environment. This follows a pilot study published in Nature Nanotechnology in 2008 suggesting that types of carbon nanotubes may behave like asbestos fibres and cause disease when injected into the abdominal cavity of mice.

Mr Howes said nanotechnology was present in high-performance manufacturing enterprises that used chemicals and applications that were enhanced by it. He was worried nanotechnology could be used to carry carcinogenic particles and believed it needed proper regulation and more research.

''What I fear with nanotechnology is that it's starting to spread everywhere through Australian industry … I think about what my predecessors did when asbestos first became widely used in Australia and all of a sudden it appeared in every workplace and household in Australia,'' he said.

''No one knew about the dangers of it; everyone thought it was this miracle fibre that could be used for anything and it was going to transform Australia. Lo and behold, it also kills you.

''It may not be the case that nanotechnology's going to do that but what I fear is that it may, and we could be dealing with that type of asbestos-style issue in the future.''

The co-ordinator of the research network NanoSafe Australia, Associate Professor Paul Wright, said there were still only a small number of nanotechnology products on the market but safety and research were a central focus.

''To make general statements about nanotechnology, it's important to realise there are many materials that nanoparticles are being made from and that appropriate testing and risk assessment has to be done for any of these materials that are being taken further in the development,'' he said. ''This whole field is being developed with safety as one of the aspects.''

Professor Wright, who has prepared reports for Safe Work Australia, said research into nano-sunscreens had found the particles to be very effective but also ''of no more toxicity than the other components that are used''.

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