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Are nanomaterials the new asbestos?

2 June 2014 Feature
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A recent article in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine details the first fully documented case of workplace illness arising from the handling of nanomaterials, that of a 26-year-old female chemist "working with nickel nanoparticle powder weighed out and handled on a lab bench with no protective measures." Within a week of handling small quantities of the powder the worker developed throat and nasal symptoms and skin irritation. Working with the tiny particles for the short period had led her body to develop nickel sensitization. The symptoms persisted even when she stopped handling the material and moved to a different floor, improving only when she left the building entirely.

"She can never work inside that building again," said the co-author of the study, who called the case "the first well-documented case of a worker handling nanoparticles in a US manufacturing facility developing serious health effects."

Nanomaterials - the product of manipulating natural and synthetic materials at the atomic and molecular level - carry a heightened toxic potential by virtue of their size alone, because they are potentially more reactive then their larger-scale counterparts. Particles at the nanoscale can be more readily absorbed by the body and can pass the blood/brain barrier. There is still no known method for limiting, controlling or even measuring human exposure to nanomaterials and processes in or outside the workplace. Despite these obvious risks, new products containing nanomaterials are being rapidly introduced and thousands of workers face exposure to unregulated and even unidentified hazards .

The US Woodrow Wilson Center Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies estimates that 3-4 food products containing nano materials are coming on line daily. A new study from Friends of the Earth (Tiny Ingredients, Big Risks) contains an extensive list of food and snack products containing unlabeled nano ingredients from major transnationals, including Coca-Cola, Danone Hershey, Kelloggf's, Mondelez, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever. All of these products contain nano titanium dioxide, which studies have shown to damage DNA, interfere with cell function and the immune system and may be carcinogenic when inhaled, among other risks.

Is nanotech the new asbestos? As with asbestos, the damage may only be manifest with time, but we already know the potential risks. Action to protect against workplace exposure is needed now. To begin with, food (and other manufacturers) must declare to workers, consumers and regulatory authorities the nanomaterials they are currently using, their specific applications, the studies undertaken to establish their safety at the workplace and the environment and the specific measures introduced to limit exposure to this huge range of hazards. The need for a moratorium on the commercialization of nano products and processes is more urgent than ever.