At the annual Fire Department Instructor Conference in Indianapolis this year, a new topic was on the agenda: risks to firefighters from engineered nanomaterials.
The prompt was a sports store blaze in Ottawa that deposited an unfamiliar black coating on fire service vehicles and gear. The attending fire safety officer believed that sports gear containing nanomaterials – including tennis and badminton rackets, archery and cycling equipment – that went up in the fire could be behind the coating.
Whether or not nano-fortified sports gear was the source of the black deposits at the blaze, the fire service is right to be concerned.
Manufactured nanomaterials have been named as the top emerging workplace risk by the European Union’s Agency for Health and Safety at Work and have repeatedly rated as a top, global technology risk in annual World Economic Forum reviews since 2006  ; and they are one that industry, workers and government must quickly wrap their minds around because nanotechnologies are predicted to pervade all manufacturing in the years to come and power a new industrial revolution.
Nanotechnology is an emerging set of techniques that manipulate matter at the atomic level. At its most basic, this means manufacturing substances at the nanoscale – 1 micron is one thousand nanometres. The nanoscale is attracting major scientific and commercial interest, because at that size range known substances act differently.
Nanomaterials are already incorporated in a wide and growing range of products and processes: coatings and construction materials, aeroplanes, weapons, electronics, food packaging, medicines, home appliances, cosmetics, automobile parts, agricultural chemicals and clothing.
The nanoscale is also a zone of risk – a new physical frontier where much of what we know may not be of use and where even nanoforms of familiar substances confound existing risk assessment. Also posing daunting challenges for risk management is the diversity of nanomaterials.
The “to do” list is enormous. The most recent in a long line of reports tracking progress in nanosafety identifies a lack of technological capability to detect, characterise or monitor nanomaterials.  Furthermore, existing models for investigating the risks are not necessarily appropriate for the nanoscale and there is a lack of safety data for most nanomaterials.
The small size of the particles is of itself reason to proceed carefully. At the nanoscale, particles can pass more easily through biological barriers such as the skin, the respiratory tract and digestive system, as well as the bloodbrain barrier. It also well established that smaller particles pose a high risk to the cardiovascular system than larger particles. Equipment that would allow for comprehensive exposure assessment is prohibitively expensive and thus likely outside the resources of small and medium businesses, in particular. The World Health Organisation believes that “authoritative safety and health guidelines” are urgently needed and has begun consultation towards these. 
To be clear, nanotech products will not necessarily be harmful; some may indeed make possible new and important advances in areas such as energy generation and medicine.
The problem is that because nanosafety research lags so far behind product development and commercialisation, it is largely impossible to say whether a nanomaterial will be benign or harmful, when measured over its lifetime. That uncertainty may persist for some time: an expert panel in the UK forecast that proper risk assessment may be decades away. 
However, some research does indicate that some types of nanoparticles could be very harmful. Carbon nanotubes (hollow cylindrical forms of carbon) are lightweight, powerful conductors and extremely strong, and have already made their way into a range of electronic products, reinforced plastics, solar cells and sporting gear (the ones that have the Ottawa Fire Service worried and many of which are now available in New Zealand). Yet carbon nanotubes are also believed to be among “the least biodegradeable man-made materials known”  and studies have indicated that certain types are similar in form to asbestos fibres and may cause similar damage and disease to the lungs.  The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), however, claims that there is not enough evidence to act .
Yet, doing nothing is a high-risk road to take. A precautionary approach to nanomaterials is needed to provide proper protection in the workplace. That means acting on uncertainty and early warnings, rather than waiting for levels of evidence that are typically only reached when a technology is entrenched in manufacturing, political resistance to change is strong and irreversible harm has been done. It is well established that such an approach would have vastly diminished the public health toll caused by asbestos.
The extent to which nanomaterials have entered into manufacturing and consumer products in New Zealand is not known and the EPA only requires notification of some nano ingredients in cosmetics. A government-commissioned study by Otago University’s Centre for Law and Policy on Emerging Technologies assessed existing laws across workplace and food safety, environmental protection and for consumer products, and found that nanoparticles would fall through the cracks of most regulation.
One reason for this is the difficulties of accurate measurement and risk assessment surrounding most engineered nanomaterials. The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act and the Health and Safety Act are only triggered when evidential thresholds demonstrating hazards are met. If there is simply no data, there is no evidence of harm, and a substance will remain unregulated.
However Government has shown little interest in trying to close those gaps, claiming the report findings offered “little new information for regulators” and that as such, “There are no significant actions emerging from it”.   Regulators’ responses to certain types of nanomaterials where there is evidence of potential harm are equally alarming. Take carbon nanotubes.
Adequate regulation of nanomaterials is slow to arrive in most countries, as governments and industry have experimented with a voluntary approach to nanomaterial reporting and workplace safety. Yet New Zealand lags well behind Australia, the EU 27 and the US, even in problem recognition and awareness. The Government can, however, learn from the experience in other countries.
Most importantly, the voluntary approach, piloted elsewhere, has not delivered. Industry response to voluntary reporting schemes in the UK has been “pathetic”, according to an expert panel, and similarly feeble in the US and Australia.  A review of 78 companies using nanomaterials in 14 countries found considerable ignorance about the safety issues around nanomaterials; widespread failure to access or adhere to existing health and safety guidance; and unsafe practices. A majority of businesses (61percent) pointed to lack of information as a core problem. 
The solution is not more guidance, according to that review. Regulation is needed to ensure transparency, accountability and safe practices in workplaces where nanomaterials are in use. 
If New Zealand’s workplace safety laws are to be relevant to the risks that workers face, they must deal with twenty-first century technologies. As such, it is well time that the Government put nanotechnologies on the regulatory map and developed a plan of action. The need to regulate is well established. Continuing in cruise control will leave workers – whether in manufacturing, construction or the fire service – unnecessarily exposed to a wide and growing range of complex materials that we currently know little about.
By Stephanie Howard
Published in Industrial Safety News, June 2012
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 European Agency for Health and Safety at Work. 2009. New and Emerging Risks in Occupational Safety and Health.
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