In the past few months a number of studies have emerged demonstrating the potential for nanomaterials to cause harm to human health and the environment.

New research published in Toxicology Sciences this August found that inhaling tiny fibres made by the nanotechnology industry could cause similar health problems to asbestos. Some are similar in shape to asbestos fibres, which have caused lung cancers such as mesothelioma. Nanofibres are used in a range of products, ranging from aeroplane wings to tennis rackets and golf clubs.

Whilst the use of nanomaterials is increasing, their environmental impact is still poorly understood. A study published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in September found that plastic nanoparticles in seawater can have an adverse effect on sea organisms. Mussels exposed to such particles eat less, and thus grow less well.

A further study published in PNAS showed that zinc oxide and cerium oxide nanoparticles adversely affect soybean growth and soil fertility. The nanoparticles harmed bacteria that the plant relies on for growth. Zinc oxide is a common component of cosmetics and sunscreens and ultimately ends up as a contaminant of solid waste generated by sewage treatment. This waste is widely used as an organic fertiliser. Cerium oxide is used in some diesel fuels to improve combustion and reduce particulate emissions. The authors concluded that the build-up of manufactured nanomaterials in soils may compromise soil-based crop quality and yield.

Similar concerns were raised regarding the use of silver nanoparticles in a study conducted by Swedish researcher Rickard Arvidsson. He warned that silver nanoparticles can have a severe environmental impact if their utilisation in clothing continues to increase. If everyone buys one silver nanoparticle-treated sock a year, the silver concentration in waste water treatment plant sludge can double. If the sludge is subsequently used as fertilizer, the silver can cause long-term damage to agricultural land.

Given the paucity of data regarding the potential harmful effects of nanomaterials, some countries are taking a justifiably precautionary approach. For example, Denmark recently announced that it would be joining France and the Netherlands in moving towards a mandatory register of nanomaterials. This will not only allow the tracking of nanomaterials through the supply chain and allow workers handling nanomaterials to adopt appropriate cautionary measures.

Meanwhile, our Federal Government has refused to take similar action here. A recent study commissioned by the government concluded that the feasibility of implementing a similar system here was “questionable”, despite the fact that other countries are in the process of doing it.