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United Nations Recognizes but Stumbles over Health and Environmental Risks of Nanotechnology

Posted to the IUF website 16-Feb-2007

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Products containing engineered nanoparticles are being rapidly introduced into commercial production in the IUF as well as other sectors, bringing with them potential threats to worker health and safety and the environment. Hundreds of products containing nanomaterials are already on supermarket shelves, ranging from food, cosmetics, personal care products, clothes and consumer electronics to sporting goods, rubber tires and household appliances. They are also invading the workplace, North and South, from farm to factory to distribution depot.

The precise number of commercially available products is unknown, because there are no labeling requirements, or even agreement on labeling criteria. Some product labels proudly advertise their nano pedigree or components, while other manufacturers retain a discrete silence about ingredients and production processes. What is certain is that nanotechnology is rapidly becoming a part of life and work, regardless of where we live and who we work for.

UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme, in its Global Environment Outlook Year Book 2007 (www.unep.org/geo/yearbook) writes that "Nanotechnology is no longer 'on the horizon'. It is fast becoming a facet of daily life." The report draws attention to the potentially grave health and environmental risks generated by the new technology, noting that "The nanoproducts now available came onto the market with limited public debate and with limited additional regulatory oversight that is specifically aimed at their novel features. Current research and development seek to rapidly explore the novel applications of nanotechnology." Where it stumbles is in the area of policy proposals to meet these dangers. A closer look is needed.

What is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology manipulates synthetic and natural materials at the atomic and molecular scale. It encompasses all processes involving measuring, manipulating and manufacturing at the level of between one to 100 nanometers, a nanometer being one billionth of a meter. A single human hair is roughly 80,000 nanometers wide, giving an idea of the scale on which nanotech operates.

Nanotechology tools and processes can be applied to virtually any manufactured good across all industry sectors. The commercial applications are therefore potentially limitless. Engineering and construction at this level makes possible, for example, the fabrication of nano-sized ingredients to add to food products to extend shelf life, or serve as sensors to track product movements over thousands of kilometers. BASF manufactures synthetic nano-scale carotenoids (the naturally occurring compound in carrots and tomatoes which gives them their characteristic color) for food processors to use in fruit juices and margarines. Pesticides are now marketed which contain nanoparticles designed to make the chemical adhere better to the plants being treated.

Corporations dream of cashing in on a market which, according to some estimates, may reach USD 2.6 trillion by 2014. Governments and over 1,300 companies in 76 industries worldwide invested USD10 billion in nanotech R&D last year. The important point for workers and trade unions is that nanotechnology has already moved out of the research lab and into the workplace - and no government in the world has put in place mandatory regulations to govern the technology

Food and agriculture are particularly attractive areas for the commercial application of nanotechnology. Estimates of the potential market for nanotech in food and food processing range from USD 6 billion to over 20 billion by 2010. Global agrofood corporations are investing heavily in nanotech R&D, both in-house and through public/private setups linking corporate, private and public research institutions.

Dozens of nanotech-based foods, food packaging and dietary supplements are already marketed commercially, including oil preservatives, food colorings, and "functional foods" to deliver-alleged health and cosmetic benefits. A typical unlabelled commercial additive is "Oilfresh", made and sold to food processors in the US. The product is made from coated zeolite particles 20 nanometers wide which are inserted into frying oil to extend product life.

The greatest immediate potential for commercial nanotechnology in the food sector is in food packaging, using nanoproducts designed to promote shelf life (e.g. the long sought-after plastic beer bottle), inhibit oxygen, carbon dioxide and moisture exposure, detect pathogens, or track products throughout the distribution cycle.

Agrochemicals are another huge potential growth market. Patents and patent applications reveal that many of the world�s leading agrochemical corporations are conducting research on new nano-scale formulations of pesticides. Syngenta, the world's largest agrochemical corporation, is already selling chemical products containing nanoparticles which IUF members will certainly have contact with. These products include Primo MAXX Plant Growth Regulator and Banner MAXX fungicide. Companies in other sectors are actively researching the use of nanotech in livestock and poultry, aquaculture and soil treatment.

Laboratory workers, agricultural workers, food processing workers, transport and commercial workers and hotel, restaurant and catering workers are in the front line of exposure to engineered nanoparticles. Yet at present, there is no known method for limiting, controlling or even measuring human exposure to nanomaterials and processes in or outside the workplace.

What are the risks?

Despite the fact that hundreds of products are already on the market, the toxicology of engineered nanoparticles is largely unknown and unresearched. What is known for certain is that particles reduced to the nano-scale have a larger surface area that can make them more chemically reactive. A substance that may be inert at the micro-or-macro scale can assume hazardous characteristics at the nano-scale. Nanoparticles as such, by virtue of their size, therefore contain a heightened toxic potential.

Nanoparticles can be inhaled, ingested or pass through the skin. Once in the bloodstream, nanoparticles can slip past traditional guardians of the body�s immune system such as the blood-brain barrier.

In 2004, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) conducted a study on the potential health impact of nanotechnology, and concluded that "Very little is known currently about how dangerous nanomaterials are, or how we should protect workers in related industries. Research over the past few years has shown that nanometer-diameter particles are more toxic than larger particles on a mass basis. The combination of particle size unique structures, and unique physical and chemical properties, suggests that a great deal of care needs to be taken to ensure adequate worker protection when manufacturing and using nanomaterials." Recognizing the potential hazards of workplace exposure, the report recommended, among other safety measures: total enclosure of workplace areas involving nanotechnology, local and general ventilation systems for workplace areas, reducing periods of exposure, the use of "suitable" personal protective equipment and regular cleaning of surfaces. The same report, however, conceded that these measures were likely to prove completely ineffective due to the nanoscale and unique properties of the particles

A July 2004 report of the UK Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering stated that "There is virtually no information available about the effect of nano-particles on species other than humans or about how they behave in the air, water or soil, or about their ability to accumulate in food chains", concluding that "Release of nano-particles should be restricted due to the potential effects on environment and human health." However the rush to develop and commercially exploit nanotech-based pesticides, fertilizers, and water and soil treatment products sets agricultural workers into motion as the agents for their release into air, water, soil and the foodchain while placing these workers in direct exposure.

Since these reports there has been a flood of new patents and processes, yet industry pressure has ensured that no regulatory framework has been developed or enacted to protect against the release of nanoparticles in the workplace and the wider environment. Regulatory agencies at national and regional level continue to opt for industry self-regulation despite mounting evidence of the toxic risks. For example, it was revealed in August 2006 that the United States Environmental Protection Agency has authorized the commercial application of 15 nano-formulated chemicals while upholding the principle of business confidentiality, which means that these substances' composition, commercial application and manufacturers' identity may not be revealed! The UK Food Standards Agency has identified significant gaps in EU legislation for regulating the uses of nanotech in food production and packaging, yet continues to maintain that voluntary self-regulation is sufficient to protect workers and the public.

Some trade unions have begun to highlight the risks and call for stricter regulation or even a moratorium on commercial nanotechnology, but much more will have to be done to ensure that workers and the public are adequately protected. The Australian national center ACTU, for example, last year submitted testimony to Parliament on the occupational health and safety risks of nanotechnology. A convenient review of English-language resources on nanotechnology as a workplace issue can be found on the union health and safety web magazine Hazards at


An excellent publication entitled "Down on the Farm: The Impact of Nano-scale Technologies on Food and Agriculture" is available in Spanish and English from the ETC Group, an NGO with which the IUF has worked effectively in the past (most recently in opposing Syngenta's attempt to patent the process by which plants flower):


Taking Action

An active lobby bringing together corporations; research institutions and marketing specialists is aggressively promoting the alleged health and environmental benefits of nanotechnology. We must not forget that asbestos, a product which annually kills 100,000 people and which the ILO estimates may eventually kill 10 million, was originally sold as a product which would save lives. It is no exaggeration to view engineered nanoparticles as superasbestos, with all that that implies for immediately implementing the regulatory measures necessary for the protection of worker and public health.

The UNEP report, though it uncritically echoes many of the nanolobby's claims for the technology's alleged benefits, does play a useful role in at least signaling the environmental risks and noting the regulatory vacuum. The only prescription on offer, however, is to urge "Governments and international organizations [to] work together with scientists and the private sector to establish scientifically and ethically sound risk-based standards for new nanotechnology-based products, and to promote best practices." This bland formula is a classic recipe for inaction. Which government departments, working with which scientists? Can "scientists", governments and the private sector be regarded as distinct entities when corporate finance increasingly dominates the research agenda and the institutions in which it is carried out? Can "best practice" (according to whose criteria?) take the place of legal regulation? If there is one lesson to be drawn from the "scientifically" approved toxic killers which have invaded the workplace, it is that protecting worker and public health and safety requires the active involvement of workers and their unions in monitoring and controlling the materials and the production processes with which they work. Voluntarism doesn't work.

In this context, it is crucial that unions internationally began to systematically gather relevant information on their members' current or potential exposure to nano-scale materials in the workplace. Governments must be pressed to immediately implement binding measures to protect worker and public health and safety from the consequences of the unregulated release of commercial nano products into the environment. And trade union and civil society organizations must push national governments and international agencies to respond to the risks which UNEP has now acknowledged and demand formal participation in shaping a global regulatory framework to meet the danger.

The implications and risks of commercial nanotechnology are on the agenda of the IUF's 25th Congress, which will be held in Geneva from March 19-22. Based on the precautionary principle, delegates will discuss the need for a global moratorium on the introduction of nano-engineered particles and processes into commercial production until such time as the potential safety threats can be adequately measured and evaluated.