MAC: Mines and Communities

The new asbestos - and another betrayal?

Published by MAC on 2006-05-11

The new asbestos - and another betrayal?

11th May 2006

Mining companies leading the way

It's being greeted by many scientists as the answer to resource scarcity, human ill-health, and environmental degradation, as well as providing a boon to consumers. At the same time, others are decrying what they regard as the "new asbestos".

What is it? It's "nanotechnology" - basically, the laboratory manipulation of minute atomic particles (one nanometre is 1,000,000,000th of a metre).

Who's promoting it? In Australia alone, the leading proponents are Rio Tinto and BHPBillliton, followed by Dow Chemical (villain of Bhopal), DuPont (the world's leading manufactuer of cyanide) - and the US government's "Defense"department.

And who's concerned about the impacts of its "development"? Not just workers, health organisations and environmental NGOs, but also Swiss Re. The world's leading re-insurer recently warned that, using the technologies currently available, "even normally harmless substances may become hazardous" and it has called for application of the "precautionary principle".

Not so long ago asbestos was hailed as a miracle material which would bring untold benefit to humankind, especially the poor. Despite disgraceful continuing promotion of this most deadly mined material by the Canadian government and the World Bank, that particular illusion has been thoroughly punctured.

How long will it take before similar promises made for nanotechnology are also dashed?

As one NGO put it last year:

"Despite rosy predictions that nanotech will provide a technical fix for hunger, disease and environmental security in the South, the extraordinary pace of nanotech patenting suggests that developing nations will [only] participate via royalty payments. In a world dominated by proprietary science, it is the patent owners and those who can pay license fees who will determine access and price."

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