New research published this week shows that multi-walled carbon nanotubes cause asbestos-like disease when injected into mice stomachs. The shocking findings have prompted The Australian Cancer Council’s CEO Professor Ian Olver to call for new standards to manage nanoparticles in consumer products like sunscreen, cosmetics and medications. Professor Olver warned that we need much more information about the health risks posed by nanoparticles, including whether or not they can be taken up through our skin, before nano sunscreens should be sold commercially.

Click here for the transcript of the interview with Professor Olver on ABC Radio National’s The World Today.

Calls for more caution over nanotechnology

The World Today, Radio National – Wednesday, May 21, 2008 12:26:00 Reporter: Simon Lauder

ELEANOR HALL: There’s more evidence today that nanotechnology, which is already on the market, could be deadly. Concerns about the use of the technology in food have been around for some time. Now there’s evidence that nanotechnology fibres could lead to mesothelioma. And the head of the Australian Cancer Council has told The World Today that there should be standards for the marketing of nanotechnology products. Simon Lauder has our report.

SIMON LAUDER: It’s a science where the potential for innovation and profit is inversely proportional to the size of the product, where measurements are in billionths of metres. Cylinders made of sheets of carbon atoms are already being used to make tennis racquets, golf clubs and bicycle handlebars lighter and stronger. But Dr Andrew Maynard from the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars has found ‘nanotubes’, as they’re known, trigger the same reaction in the lungs of mice as asbestos does, if the tiny fibres are the right length.

ANDREW MAYNARD: If you make these things short and curly, certainly in terms of producing mesothelioma, they seem to be harmless.

SIMON LAUDER: Do you know whether the products that are on the market already, incorporating nanotubes have long or short fibres?

ANDREW MAYNARD: Well, that is the fly in the ointment. At the moment it is virtually impossible to find out exactly what type of carbon nanotube is used in products so it is very hard to say how safe those products are.

SIMON LAUDER: It’s an area of innovation the CSIRO is wading into, with a new nanotechnology program just getting off the ground, under the watch of Dr Maxine McCall.

MAXINE MCCALL: There are a lot of gaps in knowledge. There is a lot of conflicting information regarding carbon nanotubes and so we are treating them as if they are like asbestos fibres.

SIMON LAUDER: For industry, nanotechnology opens up new possibilities because the characteristics of a material are so affected by their size. But that’s exactly what worries the nanotechnology campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Dr Rye Senjen. She says nanoparticles are being used in more than 100 foods worldwide, but there are no declaration requirements for manufacturers.

RYE SENJEN: For instance we found a case in Germany where the manufacturer in fact claimed they weren’t using nanoparticles and they called it "patented technology" and so they didn’t even have to disclose to the sausage makers that they were using, what they were using was in fact nanoparticles, and so it is not just the consumers we are worried about. We are actually also worried about small business and manufacturers that they inadvertently might be harming their customers.

SIMON LAUDER: Dr Senjen says the nanotechnology revolution is happening the wrong way around: commercialisation before regulation.

RYE SENJEN: In Europe they call it "no data, no market" but of course we follow the American model which says "no data, no problem".

SIMON LAUDER: One unanswered question is whether the particles in sunscreen can enter skin cells. Dr Maxine McCall says the Nanosafety team at the CSIRO is planning an experiment involving lifeguards at a Sydney beach.

MAXINE MCCALL: Applying the sun screen to the skin of these people and determining whether the zinc, the special traceable zinc that is in the sunscreen appears in their blood and urine over the course of the week and this in follow up periods.

SIMON LAUDER: If it did, would that be a potential public health concern?

MAXINE MCCALL: If would depend on how much got in and what it might cause.

SIMON LAUDER: Dr McCall says its unknown how many sunscreen products for sale in Australia contain nanoparticles, but if they have both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as ingredients and the cream is clear when it goes onto your skin, it probably has them. The CEO of the Australian Cancer Council, Professor Ian Olver, says it would have been better if the tests had been done before the products were released.

IAN OLVER: I think there is a concern that nanoparticles could be affecting the interior structure of cells because they can penetrate. And so before cosmetics and certain medications that are now coming out in nanotechnology with small particles release, these sort of tests of safety should be done.

SIMON LAUDER: In the case of sunscreen, there are only tests being done just now on humans to work out whether or not the nanoparticles make it into the skin cells. Is that too late? These products are already on the market.

IAN OLVER: I think sometimes the information that there could be a danger comes out after a product has been released and clearly the ideal would be to do this sort of testing before the release.

SIMON LAUDER: Professor Olver says it’s time for the regulations to catch up.

IAN OLVER: Well, I think we should set some standards and we should demand that some research findings are available before products are released.

ELEANOR HALL: That is the CEO of the Cancer Council, Professor Ian Olver, speaking to Simon Lauder.