The Australian Government has issued its long awaited response to the recommendations of the 2005-06 Senate Inquiry into workplace exposure to toxic dust and nanoparticles. Disappointingly, the Government ignored 2 of the 3 key recommendations. These include recommendations to take practical action to close the legal loopholes that leave commercial use of many nanomaterials effectively unregulated, and to support widespread public consultation on what measures are necessary to safely manage the health risks of occupational exposure to nanomaterials.

Specific concerns of Friends of the Earth include:

Recommendation 12 – “That the National Nanotechnology Strategy be finalised as a matter of priority”

The Senate Committee recognised the need for a national strategy that spelt out how Australia should manage the occupational exposure risks and other public interest challenges of nanotechnology so that workers are not left exposed to unacceptable occupational exposure to nanomaterials. The Government response states that although funding for Australia’s National Nanotechnology Strategy expires in less than a year, the National Innovation Review will provide a future pathway for nanotechnology development.

Friends of the Earth is very concerned that the Innovation Review falls far short of addressing nanotechnology’s serious new health and environment risks. Nanotechnology receives only one explicit mention in the Innovation Review report on p92; there is no stated strategy for managing nanomaterials’ health risks or occupational hazards.

Recommendation 13 – “That a working party on nanotechnology regulation consisting of representatives of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, NICNAS and the Australian Safety and Compensation Council be established to consider the impact of the emerging field of nanotechnology on the regulatory framework including: – whether existing regulations are appropriate; – how gaps and uncertainties in the regulatory framework can be addressed; – how comprehensive management of risks of exposure to nanoparticles can be incorporated into the regulatory framework; – whether Australia will require materials, already assessed as safe at the macro scale, to be reassessed if they are to be used at the nanoscale; and – whether there is a need for the establishment of a permanent body to regulate nanotechnology. The working party should consult with stakeholders including consumer groups, State and Territory governments, unions, industry, health organisations and the public and provide a public report on these issues by March 2007.”

Friends of the Earth is extremely disappointed that the Government response to this recommendation ignores all of these timely recommendations for practical and transparent action to close regulatory gaps. It states only that an inter-agency working group currently addresses OHS issues and ensures a coordinated whole-of-government approach.

The recent review of Australia’s regulation of nanomaterials carried out by researchers at Monash University confirmed that there are several key gaps in our management of nanomaterials. A major gap the researchers identified is that nano forms of familiar substances may escape regulation, with no requirement for any safety assessment prior to commercial use. Friends of the Earth is concerned that this may leave effectively unregulated many nanomaterials now in commercial use. Yet despite this review confirming the concerns of the Senate Inquiry, the Government has made no commitment to taking action to close these serious legal loopholes.

The Government response to Recommendation 13 also ignores the Inquiry’s calls for public participation and transparency in determining what measures are necessary to ensure safe management of occupational exposure to nanomaterials. The Inquiry recommended wide public consultation on the measures necessary to ensure appropriate management of nanotoxicity risks, followed by the release of a public report on key findings. However the Government response fails to support any form of public participation in its decision making process.

We are extremely unhappy at the casual approach of the Federal Government to the occupational health risks associated with nanomaterials exposure. It appears that although the Rudd Government was elected on the back of the popular “Your Rights at Work” campaign, it is less than committed to ensuring the rights of workers to a safe workplace.

For Friends of the Earth’s submission to the 2005 Senate Inquiry into Workplace Exposure to Toxic Dust click here.

For our recent review of the scientific evidence of the asbestos-like health risks of carbon nanotubes click here.