The Australian newspaper reports on the worst damage to the Great Barrier reef ever caused by a ship. The 100,000 tonne coal carrier the Shen Neh 1 “pulverised” a 3km section of the reef in the 9 days it was stranded on the coral. Now scientists warn that anti-fouling paint from the ship, left everywhere they have looked so far, could cause considerable long-term damage to the reef. FOEA asks, would the reef’s recovery be further set back if this were anti-bacterial nano-paint, and what action is required to ensure that manufactured nanomaterials are not posing unacceptable risks to our marine environment?

The damage caused by the giant coal carrier is severe. It gouged a 3km long, 250m wide furrow in the coral it grounded on, and pressed anti-fouling paint into the reef. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority chief scientist David Wachenfeld told The Australian that the best case scenario were the anti-fouling paint to be chemical-free, would be 10-20 years recovery time from the physical damage to the coral. However, if the paint contains heavy metals, which is likely, “that would really mean a much longer timeframe on recovery because that would stop any plants and animals from recolonising”.

Anti-bacterial nanomaterials are now used in a wide range of products where there are real risks and sometimes direct release of nanomaterials into the environment. These include personal care products, clothing, household cleaning products, dishwashers, disinfectants and anti-fouling paints for boats.

There is no suggestion that nano-paint was used on the Shen Neng 1 (although given the lack of mandatory labelling of nano-ingredients it is unlikely that either the ship’s owners or relevant regulators would know). But it seems timely to ask had nano-paint been used on the ship, could damage to the World-Heritage listed reef have been even worse? And importantly – how can we ensure that anti-bacterial nanomaterials in ever increasing commercial use be regulated to ensure that they are not posing unacceptable risks to our environment?