Australian workers and employers are flying blind when it comes to management of nano’s risks in the workplace, according to a report from Safe Work Australia. The federal agency commissioned a review of 50 Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). 84% of the MSDS “did not provide adequate and accurate information sufficient to inform an occupational risk assessment for nanomaterial contained in the product”. 11 out of 12 MSDS relating to carbon nanotubes described their risk as equivalent to that of graphite, despite some forms of carbon nanotubes having been demonstrated to cause asbestos-like disease.

The fact that 89% of the MSDS surveyed conformed with the Australian Code of Practice for Preparation of MSDS suggests strongly that the Code requires updating to meet the new risks and challenges of nanomaterials.

Workers and employers rely on MSDS to inform their risk management in the workplace. The Australian Council of Trade Unions’ spokesperson on nanotechnology, Renata Musolino, told ABC Science that: “The Material Safety Data Sheet is your ‘go-to’ document to find out what you’re using … It tells you what you have to do in the workplace to ensure people’s health and safety is protected, and what you need to have in place to ensure you can handle a spill or an accident.”

The fact that such a high proportion of MSDS provided irrelevant or unreliable information is a great concern. The report also found that information about control measures and exposure standard was similarly inadequate, and largely related to the bulk forms of a substance, rather than their nano-forms. Further, only 3 of 50 MSDS described the material’s ecotoxic properties. As waste from industrial waste streams and workplaces grows, the potential for adverse environmental impacts could become a serious problem.

On a positive note, the review found that 14 of 15 labels surveyed did state that the substances contained nano. However, similarly to the MSDS, the labels failed to provide appropriate information to manage nanotoxicity risks.

A key problem that remains largely unacknowledged in the emerging discussion about nanotechnology’s occupational risks is the absence of any long-term studies that provide meaningful data regarding the potential for occupational exposure to nanomaterials to cause new health problems. It is still unknown whether or not there are any ‘safe’ levels of occupational exposure to nanomaterials, or whether all levels of occupational exposure present the potential for long-term health harm. There are significant knowledge gaps and uncertainties regarding nanomaterials biological behaviour, biopersistence, appropriate parameters for physico-chemical characterisation and difficulties associated with accurate and routine measurement, detection and measurement.

A precautionary approach demands that in circumstances of uncertainty, with early warning signs that some nanomaterials could cause serious health harm, occupational exposure to nanomaterials be prevented. However, it may be practically and economically impossible to prevent occupational exposure to nanomaterials in the wide range of industries and workplace settings in which they are used.

It may be unlikely that outworkers in the clothing and textiles sector sewing nano-silver treated fabrics, nursing staff using nano-silver antibacterial cleaning agents, cleaners and maintenance staff in nano-cosmetics production centres or construction workers cutting nano-coated building equipment will have access to expensive engineering control systems and personal protective equipment. It is currently impossible even for people with sensitive or damaged skin to choose to purchase non-nano sunscreen.

The Safe Work Australia report did not make any explicit recommendations. However Friends of the Earth repeats our call for:

• a halt to commercial use of manufactured nanomaterials until all manufactured nanomaterials are assessed as new chemicals, deemed to be safe by validated new nano-specific safety assessment regimes, and appropriate nano-specific exposure standards are established;
• the Australian Code of Practice for Preparation of MSDS is updated to require suppliers to characterise individual nanomaterials and to provide hazard information and risk management advice that is specific to the particular nanomaterial;
• all manufactured nanomaterials to face mandatory labelling, to enable workers, employers and the public to make informed choices about nano-exposure and to take appropriate workplace safety measures
• a mandatory register of all nanomaterials in commercial use be established to enable identification and monitoring of what is used and where, as per previous calls by the ACTU and supported by the Australian Nano Business Forum.