A top Finnish occupational health and safety expert has called for action to ensure that we do not repeat the tragic mistakes of asbestos by hailing to heed early evidence of nanotechnology health risks. The original article “Let us not allow the 20th century asbestos catastrophe to be followed by a nano catastrophe” was published by “Trade Union News” from Finland and is copied below.

Helsinki (16.03.2009 – Juhani Artto)

In the shops there are over 600 products based on nanotechnology, such as socks, tooth paste, sun cream and bed sheets. It has been forecast that annual sales will grow from the present EUR100 billion to EUR2,500 billion.

The possibilities are enormous but we know barely anything about the risks, says Kai Savolainen from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. And he is the right person to speak about risks, as he is the Institute’s director of the nanotechnology safety research and acts also as the coordinator of European research projects on nanotechnology health risks.

Recently SAK’s magazine Palkkatyöläinen published his insights, presented in a trade union seminar, on nanotechnology risks. We were far too late in taking the health risks of asbestos seriously, Savolainen reminds us. In spite of the risks, the use of asbestos went on for decades, and there are still countries where its use has not yet been banned.

When the economic expectations are big, one tends to ignore the health risks, Savolainen explains. In this he sees a similarity between asbestos and nanotechnology. According to an article by Tuure Hurme, also from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, only one per cent of the research resources on nanotechnology are directed towards risk assessments.

The greatest risks concern employees at the production and scrapping stages, where there are already millions of people employed, Hurme writes. One place researchers’ warnings have received attention is in the trade union organisations around the world. For a good sample of English language union materials, on this new working life problem, visit the web site of the British Hazards magazine (www.hazards.org/nanotech).

Then there are several non-profit organisations urging authorities to take concrete steps to limit the risks. In the USA, for example, the International Center for Technology Assessment and a coalition of consumer, health and environmental groups demanded, in May 2008, that the US Environmental Protection Agency ban the sale of over 200 potentially dangerous nano-silver products (http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/files/cta_nano-silver-petition__final_5_1_08.pdf).

However, decision-makers have been very slow to take action. The asbestos case, where a hazardous substance continued in use even after the fatal dangers of the material were unambiguously exposed, should now serve as a wake up call to all concerned parties. As the Finnish expert Kai Savolainen is at pains to point out in Palkkatyöläinen: “Let us not allow the 20th century asbestos catastrophe to be followed by a nano catastrophe”.