Nanomaterials are everywhere, but their use is totally unregulated. Emily Dugan reports
Europe is failing to control a burgeoning industry in microscopic materials, prompting claims that it has failed to heed the lessons from millions of asbestos deaths, according to a hard-hitting new report. Despite early warnings of the damage some nanomaterials could cause, EU governments are still reacting too slowly to signs of potentially deadly environmental hazards.
Nanomaterials - tiny particles as small as a billionth of a metre - are not currently governed by any regulations specific to them in Britain or the EU, despite concern about the possible effect some may have on health.
A major study published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) last week says European governments - including the UK's - are "paralysed by analysis" and failing to act: "Twenty years have elapsed since first indications of nanomaterial harm were published", it said, "and in the intervening time an increasing body of literature has been developed on how nanomaterials interact with cells, mammals and aquatic organisms. Yet many governments still call for more information as a substitute for action."
Carbon nanotubes - tiny pieces of carbon used to strengthen all sorts of materials - have been singled out for their potential to cause health problems similar to asbestos if inhaled. Research shows that long carbon nanotubes - which are similar in shape to asbestos fibres - cause precancerous growths on the lungs in the same way as asbestos when tested on mice.
Nanosilver, whose antibacterial properties mean it is used in everything from disinfectant to socks, was also highlighted in the report, which says it might damage the environment if it gets into the water system. Early studies suggest that nanosilver in water harms the health and fertility of fish and algae, which could damage ecosystems.
Despite a growing body of evidence that carbon nanotubes may be carcinogenic, the industry is so unregulated that The Independent on Sunday was able to order a jar of the particles over the internet without receiving any safety warnings or checks. There is also anecdotal evidence of factories around Europe flouting basic health guidance and allowing their workers to mix the particles in open buckets without respirators.
Professor Ken Donaldson at the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Inflammation Research, whose studies first showed that longer carbon nanotubes could have the potential to cause conditions such as the cancer mesothelioma in mice, said: "I think the biggest risk is in factories. People are now making carbon nanotubes in bulk amounts, so there are people handling them in large quantities. I think people should be careful about nanofibres and find a way to regulate them."
But he cautioned against any blanket ban of nanotechnology, saying: "Nanoparticles are the same as other particles: some are super-harmful like asbestos and others are virtually harmless."
Steffen Foss Hansen, co-author of the EEA study, said: "We have to hope that the production method used to make carbon nanotubes is in enclosed chambers, but it's the handling, especially by people who put them into products, that we're concerned about. …