Union raises nanotechnology fears
Union leader Paul Howes has likened nanotechnology to asbestos, calling for more research to ease fears that 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 secretary said.
Tiny 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 in Nature Nanotechnology in 2008 suggesting that types of carbon nanotubes may behave like asbestos fibres and cause disease when injected into mice.
Mr Howes said nanotechnology was present in high-performance manufacturing enterprises that used chemicals and applications that were enhanced by nanotechnology.
He said he was worried that nanotechnology could be used to carry carcinogenic particles and he believed it needed more regulation and research.
''What I fear with nanotechnology is that it's starting to spread everywhere through Australian industry and where it's being used and 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.
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.