MAC/20: 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."


The following articles are from a Friends of Earth (Australia) Briefing Sheet:

A) Introduction to nanotechnology and nanotechnology development in Australia

The overwhelming majority of the general public - and much of government - remains unaware of what the term "nanotechnology" means. However research, development and industrial use of "nanotechnology" has been growing rapidly for the past decade and is already worth several billion dollars annually. Hundreds of products containing nanomaterials are being manufactured and sold commercially.

Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter at the atomic or molecular level. The term nanotechnology refers to engineered structures, materials and systems that operate at a scale of 100 nanometres or less (1). One nanometre is one billionth of a metre; a human hair is about 80, 000 nm wide.

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.

However now scientists have developed ways of manufacturing synthetic nanoparticles for use in a wide variety of products, from more reactive industrial catalysts, transparent sunscreens and cosmetics, self-cleaning toilets, long-lasting paints, targeted drug delivery, 'smart' surveillance equipment, 'smart' fertilisers, 'smart' packaging, to 'nutritionally enhanced' foods.

Investment in the industry is forecast to grow to US$1 trillion by 2011-2015 (2). The US National Science Foundation estimates that in 2015 there will be 2 million workers employed in nanotechnology-related industries world wide; the number of people in secondary industries using nanotechnology-related materials and devices will be orders of magnitude greater.

There are now over 50 Australian companies focussed on nanotechnology. Australian nanotech research spans materials, biotechnology, energy, environment, electronics, photonics, computing and surveillance.

The Australian Research Council currently funds more than 200 nanotechnology research projects (3). Australian universities, CSIRO, the Australian Nuclear Science Technology Organisation and the Defence Science Technology Organisation are also active in nanotechnology research and development.

Multinational companies involved in Australian nanotechnology include Rio Tinto, AstraZeneca, BHP Billiton, Dow Chemical, DuPont, L'Oréal, Motorola, Orica, Revlon, and the US Government's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Australian nano products already on the market include: transparent sunscreens and cosmetics; colour-fast fabrics; self-cleaning windows; long-lasting paints and furniture varnishes; fuel catalysts; and automotive and aerospace components (4).

These products have been commercialised without a regulatory regime. The safety of nano-scale ingredients is not tested and products containing nanoparticles are not labelled.

1 The Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering, UK. 2004. Nanoscience and nanotechnologies. Available at http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/

2 Bainbridge, William S. and Mihail C. Roco. 2001. "Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology." NSET

Workshop report for the NSF. www.wtec.org/loyola/nano/NSET.Societal.Implications/

3 Commonwealth of Australia, Invest Australia. 2005. Australian Nanotechnology: Capability & Commercial Potential, 2nd Edition. Available at http://investaustralia.hyperlink.net.au

4 Commonwealth of Australia, Invest Australia. 2005. Australian Nanotechnology: Capability & Commercial Potential, 2nd Edition. Available at http://investaustralia.hyperlink.net.au


B) Evidence of probable harm to health associated with exposure to nanoparticles

The properties of matter change at the nano-scale, as the laws of classical physics give way to quantum effects. The physical properties of nano-sized particles can therefore be quite different from those of larger particles of the same substance. Altered properties can include colour, solubility, material strength, electrical conductivity and magnetic behaviour. Nano-sized particles also have a greater surface area relative to mass. This makes them much more chemically reactive (1).

The altered properties of nano-sized particles have created new possibilities for profitable products and applications. These altered properties also raise significant health and environmental risks that remain poorly studied, poorly understood and wholly unregulated. However the little peer-reviewed toxicological research that has been published regarding the health and environmental impacts of nanoparticle exposure is extremely concerning.

One risk that is clearly understood is the enhanced toxicity of nano-scale material (2). Many studies have found a clear inverse relationship between toxicity of insoluble materials and particle size, irrespective of parent material (3) .

The global reinsurance giant Swiss Re warns that at the nano-scale even normally harmless substances may become hazardous (4). This renders toxicity tests of larger quantities of a substance irrelevant to determining the safety of nano-sized relatives - a fact that is yet to be reflected in the regulatory system.

Unlike larger microparticles, nanoparticles are highly mobile and readily enter the blood stream following inhalation or ingestion. It also appears likely that nanoparticles can penetrate human skin and gain access to the blood stream (5).

Inhaled nanoparticles penetrate the protective mucus lining of human lungs and have high rates of deposition in the deeper lungs. Scavenger cells usually intercept foreign bodies and larger sized particles that make it past the mucus lung lining and into the deeper lung (6). However scientific studies have shown that these cells have difficulty recognising nano-scale particles, are readily overloaded, and their action is impaired (7).

Irrespective of their chemical composition, nanoparticles are potent inducers of inflammatory lung injury (8). 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 (9). Organisations as diverse as The Workers' Health International News' (Hazards Magazine) (10) and Swiss Re global reinsurers (11) are making the comparison between exposure to nanoparticles and asbestos (see below).

Additional to causing direct lung damage, laboratory studies have repeatedly shown that nanoparticles cross from the deeper lungs to the blood stream. Once in the blood stream, nanoparticles are transported around the body and are absorbed by organs and (12,13) tissues including the brain, heart, liver, bone marrow, ovaries and muscles. Inhaled nanoparticles can travel directly to the brain along olfactory nerve cells (14). This is of particular concern given recent findings that nanoparticles cause brain damage to fish (15) and dogs (16).

Ingested nanoparticles can be absorbed into the lymphatic system, and from there the blood stream, by intestinal tissue nodules known as "Peyer's plaques" (17). As a general rule, the smaller the particle the greater is its absorption.

It has been shown that microparticles can penetrate human skin (18). The UK Health and Safety Executive (19) note that skin penetration by nanoparticles is comparatively even more likely. Scientists have suggested that nanoparticles may penetrate into hair follicles and then enter the deeper skin, from where they could access the blood stream. Several pharmaceutical companies are believed to be developing nanoparticles for dermal penetration as a drug delivery route, based on their ability to gain access to the blood stream.

The duration of deposits of nanoparticles in vital organs is unknown, although there is some evidence to suggest they may accumulate in organs such as the liver (20). The extent of damage they may do and what dose may cause a harmful effect remains unknown. However scientists have shown that even low levels of nanoparticles are toxic to human liver cells (21). Other diseases of the liver suggest that the accumulation of even harmless foreign matter may also impair its function and result in harm.

Neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's are thought to be caused by a disruption of the iron concentration in the brain. However, iron oxide nanoparticles are already being used in a number of applications, for example magnetic resonance scans (22).

1 The Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering, UK. 2004. Nanoscience and nanotechnologies. Available at http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/

2 The Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering, UK. 2004. Nanoscience and nanotechnologies. Available at http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/

3 Institute of Occupational Medicine for the Health and Safety Executive. 2004. Nanoparticles: An occupational hygiene review. Available at http://www.hse.gov.uk

4 Swiss Re. 2004. Nanotechnology: Small matter, many unknowns. Available at http://www.swissre.com

5 Institute of Occupational Medicine for the Health and Safety Executive. 2004. Nanoparticles: An occupational hygiene review.Available at http://www.hse.gov.uk

6 Wichmann HE and Peters A. 2000. "Epidemiological evidence of the effects of ultrafine particle exposure". Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 358:2751-2769.

7 Wichmann HE and Peters A. 2000. "Epidemiological evidence of the effects of ultrafine particle exposure". Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 358:2751-2769.

8 US National Institute of Environmental Health Services.2003. Factsheet: Nanotechnology Safety Assessment: National Toxicology Program. Available at http://www.niehs.nih.gov/oc/factsheets/nano.htm

9 Institute of Occupational Medicine for the Health and Safety Executive. 2004. Nanoparticles: An occupational hygiene review. Available at http://www.hse.gov.uk

10 Workers Health International News. 2004. "Nanotech safety". Hazards Magazine. Issue 87 July-September. Available at http://www.hazards.org

11 Swiss Re. 2004. Nanotechnology: Small matter, many unknowns. Available at http://www.swissre.com

12 Oberdörster G, Sharp Z, Atuderoi V, Elder A, Gelein, R, Lunts A, Kreyling W, Cox C. 2002. "Extrapulmonary translocation of ultrafine carbon particles following whole-body inhalation exposure of rats." Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. Part A, 65:1531-1543

13 Kreyling WG, Semmler M, Erbe F, Mayer P, Takenaka S, Schulz H, Oberdörster G, Ziesenis A. 2002. "Translocation of ultrafine insoluble iridium particles from lung epithelium to extrapulmonary organs is size dependent but very low." Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. Part A, 65:1513-1530.

14 Oberdörster G, Sharp Z, Atudorei V, Elder A, Gelein R, Kreyling W, Cox C. 2004. "Translocation of inhaled ultrafine particles to the brain". Inhal Toxicol. 16(6-7):437-45.

15 Oberdörster E. 2004. Manufactured nanomaterials (fullerenes, C60) induce oxidative stress in the brain of juvenile largemouth bass. Environ. Health Perspect., 112, 1058-1062.

16 Cited in UK Trades Union Congress. 2005. Nanotechnology Factsheet. Available at http://www.tuc.org.uk/h_and_s/tuc-8350f0.cfm

17 Swiss Re. 2004. Nanotechnology: Small matter, many unknowns. Available at http://www.swissre.com

18 Tinkle SS, Antonini JM, Roberts JR, Salmen R, DePree K, Adkins EJ. 2003. "Skin as a route of exposure and sensitisation in chronic beryllium disease", Environmental Health Perspectives. 111:1202-1208.

19 Institute of Occupational Medicine for the Health and Safety Executive. 2004. Nanoparticles: An occupational hygiene review. Available at http://www.hse.gov.uk

20 Oberdörster G, Sharp Z, Atuderoi V, Elder A, Gelein, R, Lunts A, Kreyling W, Cox C. 2002. "Extrapulmonary translocation of ultrafine carbon particles following whole-body inhalation exposure of rats." Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. Part A, 65:1531-1543

21 Sayes C M, Fortner JD, Guo W, Lyon D, Boyd AM, Ausman KD, Tao YJ, Sitharaman B, Wilson LJ, Hughes JB, West JL,Colvin VL. 2004. "The differential cytotoxicity of water-soluble fullerenes". Nanolett. 4, 1881-1887.

22 Swiss Re. 2004. Nanotechnology: Small matter, many unknowns. Available at http://www.swissre.com


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 http://www.hse.gov.uk

2 US National Institute of Environmental Health Services.2003. Factsheet: Nanotechnology Safety Assessment: National Toxicology Program. Available at http://www.niehs.nih.gov/oc/factsheets/nano.htm

3 Institute of Occupational Medicine for the Health and Safety Executive. 2004. Nanoparticles: An occupational hygiene review. Available at http://www.hse.gov.uk

4 Swiss Re. 2004. Nanotechnology: Small matter, many unknowns. Available at http://www.swissre.com

5 UK Trades Union Congress. 2005. Nanotechnology Factsheet. Available at http://www.tuc.org.uk/h_and_s/tuc-8350-f0.cfm

6 Swiss Re. 2004. Nanotechnology: Small matter, many unknowns. Available at http://www.swissre.com

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 www.hsl.gov.uk


D) The disruptive social impact of nanotechnology

The socio-economic impacts of nanotechnology will be equally significant as its health and environmental impacts. Given the current development trajectory of nanotechnology, this technology is likely to exacerbate already existing social inequities and unsustainable levels of resource use.

As nanotechnology converges with biotechnology and information technology, patents on atomically modified organisms and materials will increase, as will corporate control of the building blocks of the natural world.

"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 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 ."(1)

The huge costs associated with nanotech research will also demand a focus on profitable applications that will deliver a financial return.

Inevitably this will result in medicines, 'smart' foods or 'cosmaceuticals' for the lifestyle conditions of the rich, rather than any effort to reduce the huge inequities in global food distribution that underpin many of the life-threatening illnesses of the poor.

The quest to rebuild life from the atom up, and to replace 'inefficient' primary production with synthetic nanotech alternatives, will have disastrous economic implications for nations that currently rely on export of food or other natural products.

"Synthesising molecular alternatives to natural products will displace millions from primary production and rob the Third World of economic options. It will accelerate existing trends of patent monopolies over life - making a few corporations 'life-lords'. Most importantly, nanotechnologies and the molecular vision of life will undermine more holistic systems for food and health."(2)

The depressing reality is that nanotechnology is likely to result in significant social dislocation as synthetic nanotech alternatives displace use of some traditional products. However it will also lead the next wave of expansion of industrial consumerism, increasing rates of existing unsustainable resource use.

1 The ETC Group, 2005. Nanotech's "Second Nature" Patents: Implications for the Global South". June
16 . Available at http://www.etcgroup.org/article.asp?newsid=509

2 Vandana Shiva, Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology, India, cited in: McKibben
B. 2004. "Promising the world, or costing the earth?" Ecologist Asia, Vol. 12, No. 1, January-March.
Available at http://www.sanctuaryasia.com/features/detailfeatures.php?id=666


Brumby calls for joint nano development

By Ian Porter, The Age

26th September 2005

PRODUCT development and manufacturing — not to mention profit margins — across a wide range of industries will be affected by the spread and adoption of nanotechnology in coming years.

But Australia is going to have to be smart about how it approaches the new engineering discipline, according to Treasurer John Brumby. "Nanoengineered products offer radical new functionality, reduced cost and size and improved efficiencies and reliability," Mr Brumby said ahead of the Living in a Nano World conference, starting in Melbourne today.

It is being presented by Materials Australia, the CSIRO, Nanotechnology Victoria and MiniFAB.

Mr Brumby said nanotechnology would reach into many of the industries that are prominent in Victoria, from automotive and biotech to chemicals and textiles. Mining was a prime candidate to benefit, Mr Brumby said.

"Companies like BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Mindata are working on separation nanotechnologies and bio-extraction applications for particles and powders." Future possibilities include mining without surface disturbance and processes to eliminate tailings and mining waste, two areas of contention for the industry.

A total of around $150 million has already been committed by governments to the funding of research and establishing organisations such as Materials Australia and Nanotechnology Victoria, and that does not include the $206 million synchrotron in Victoria, which is expected to play a key development role behind the new engineering.

But Mr Brumby also is realistic.

"Australia does not have the markets or scale of resources that can be committed to nanotechnology compared with other economies," he said. "So we need to be smarter and co-ordinated across states and territories at both the R&D (research and development) and business level."

 

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