The European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) has just released its Risk Assessment of Products of Nanotechnologies. In light of shocking new studies last year finding that carbon nanotubes that look like asbestos fibres also pose asbestos-like health risks, the SCENIHR draws particular attention to the risks of carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes are now used commercially in electronics, specialty car and aeroplane parts, reinforced plastics and polymers, fuel filters and sports equipment. However it also warns that other nanomaterials such as nanowires that share the fibre like properties of asbestos are likely to also pose similar health problems.

On page 9 of its report the SCENIHR said: “When nanotubes were found to have similar characteristics to some types of hazardous asbestos, it was demonstrated that similar inflammatory reactions can be induced by these specific nanotubes as induced by asbestos… The main conclusion of the studies on these specific carbon nanotubes relating to a risk for mesothelioma is that such a risk cannot be excluded… The possibility for chronic inflammation and mesothelioma induction should therefore be considered in the safety evaluation of that particular manufactured nanomaterial.”

Despite warnings since 2004 that carbon nanotubes could pose asbestos like health effects, Australian federal government inaction on nanotechnology risks is leaving us vulnerable to a repeat of the asbestos tragedy. Two independent animal studies were published last year finding that carbon nanotubes cause asbestos-like pathogenicity.

Now one of the most senior scientific committees in the European Commission is warning that these risks must be taken seriously – and that they are likely to exist for other non carbon nanotubes, and possibly for nanowires as well. Australian workers still have no way of knowing whether or not they are handling carbon nanotubes in their workplace, what exposure levels they are subject to, and what – if any – mitigation systems are in place to protect them.

Friends of the Earth repeats its calls for sales of products that contain carbon nanotubes to be halted until mandatory measures are established to prevent occupational exposure to carbon nanotubes, and until there is mandatory disclosure to all workers affected.

Nanoparticles are now used in a wide range of consumer and industrial products including sunscreens, cosmetics, food packaging, clothing, paints, household appliances and more. The SCENIHR emphasises that case by case risk assessment is warranted for all nanoparticles.

Although the SCENIHR report doesn’t provide an assessment of the risks of particular kinds of products, and it doesn’t address the controversial issue of skin penetration by cosmetics and sunscreens, it does provide a useful summary of other knowledge we have of the health and environmental risks of nanoparticles.

It also stresses that agglomerates and aggregates – clumps of nanoparticles that are themselves bigger than nanoparticles – should be treated as nanoparticles for the purposes of health and safety assessment.