MAC: Mines and Communities

C) Will nanoparticle exposure in the workplace become the 'new asbestos'?

Published by MAC on 2006-05-11

C) Will nanoparticle exposure in the workplace become the 'new asbestos'?

In the past, nano-sized particles have been produced incidentally as a by-product of fires, high-temperature industrial processes such as engine combustion and high energy welding or grinding. Australians whose work exposes them to engine fumes, or those who work in high energy industrial processes such as welding or refining, are likely to be exposed to incidentally produced nanoparticles in their workplace. However as the market expands for synthetically produced nanoparticles, the number of workers exposed to synthetic nanoparticles is also increasing rapidly.

No data exist on the incidence of Australian workplace exposure to nanoparticles. A recent survey by the UK government's Health and Safety Executive(1) estimated the number of UK workers likely to be exposed to nanoparticles in the workplace. From these estimates, we have extrapolated possible incidence of Australian workplace exposure to nanoparticles, based on population comparisons. However variation in employment characteristics between the two nations makes it extremely desirable for a comprehensive Australian survey to be conducted.

We estimate the following possible numbers of workers may be exposed to nanoparticles:

. as many as 700 people currently employed in activities in which they may be regularly exposed to synthetic nanoparticles (eg laboratory workers, researchers at universities or in the private sector, cleaners of these facilities)

. as many as 33,000 people whose work exposes them to fine powders through processing, packaging or handling processes (eg in the cosmetics, pharmaceutical or pigment production industries). It is impossible to know what proportion of these powders contain nano-sized particles powders

. more than 300,000 Australian workers exposed to nanoparticles that are incidentally produced in high-energy industrial processes eg refining, welding, grinding

The similarities between serious health risks presented by workplace exposure to nanoparticles and workplace exposure to asbestos have been noted by parties as diverse as global reinsurer Swiss Re and the Workers' Health International News' (Hazards Magazine).

There are similarities in the potential for exposure to asbestos and nanoparticles to cause serious pulmonary disease. Irrespective of their chemical composition, nanoparticles are potent inducers of inflammatory lung injury (2). The UK Health and Safety Executive note that persistent lung inflammation as a result of exposure to nanoparticles (as with other toxic dust) is likely to lead to diseases such as fibrosis and cancer (3).

However the most important similarity between asbestos and nanoparticles may be the lag time between exposure and the potential onset of serious harm - resulting in significant human and financial cost (4).

The human and financial costs associated with claims relating to asbestos exposure are extremely high. The UK Trade Union Congress estimates that 3, 000 people a year continue to die from asbestos exposure-related disease (5). Many times more have suffered serious illness. The three waves of asbestos claims have cost US insurers and re-insurers approximately US$135 billion, with a fourth wave of potential claims estimated to be as great as an additional US$200 to $275 billion (6).

To safeguard against a repeat of the asbestos experience, the global reinsurer Swiss Re advocates a strict application of the precautionary principle in the regulation of nanotechnology. Swiss Re emphasizes that conservative regulation that puts health and safety first must be adopted, irrespective of uncertainties in scientific circles.

At a presentation in the UK last year the Head of the Science Strategy and Statistics Division of the UK Health and Safety Executive also recommended that rigorous regulation be developed to prevent nanoparticle exposure becoming the 'new asbestos'. He noted that if regulators introduced "controls that are too lax, significant health effects [will] harm many people. The history of asbestos should warn all of society of the human and financial costs of this possibility."(7)

However despite recommendations for rigorous regulations from eminent scientific bodies, national workers' unions and global reinsurance agents, and strong words from government health agencies, nanotechnology is still wholly unregulated.

There is an urgent need for a moratorium on the research, development and production of synthetic nanoproducts while regulations are developed to protect the health and safety of workers, the public and the environment from the harmful impacts of nanotechnology. This regulatory regime must also ensure the safety of exposure levels for workers in high-energy industrial processes who are regularly exposed to incidentally-produced nanoparticles.

1 Institute of Occupational Medicine for the Health and Safety Executive. 2004. Nanoparticles: An occupational hygiene review. Available at

2 US National Institute of Environmental Health Services.2003. Factsheet: Nanotechnology Safety Assessment: National Toxicology Program. Available at

3 Institute of Occupational Medicine for the Health and Safety Executive. 2004. Nanoparticles: An occupational hygiene review. Available at

4 Swiss Re. 2004. Nanotechnology: Small matter, many unknowns. Available at

5 UK Trades Union Congress. 2005. Nanotechnology Factsheet. Available at

6 Swiss Re. 2004. Nanotechnology: Small matter, many unknowns. Available at

7 Health and Safety Laboratory, UK. 2004. "Nanomaterials at work: a risk to health at work?" In Report of Presentations at Plenary and Workshop Sessions and Summary of Conclusions. First International Symposium on Occupational Health

Implications of Nanomaterials, held by the UK Health and Safety Laboratory and the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Available at

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