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What is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is the development of structures at the ‘nano’ scale. A nanometer is 0.000000001m (human hair is 0.0001). Nanotechnology can be found in a large number of industrial and consumer items that may be creeping into our workplace.

Nanoparticles are now used in everything from cosmetics and sunscreen to paint and even vitamins. Other nanotechnologies can be found in cleaners, food packaging, clothing, sprays, and even pool chemicals. The technology will likely soon affect the production of almost everything you come into contact with.

How common is it?

Nanotechnology is in its infancy, but it is evolving rapidly. There are currently over 50 scientific research journals dedicated to the topic, and over 800 nano-enhanced products on the market already. There were $50 billion dollars worth of nanotech products sold in 2006. Research into new opportunities for optics, electronics, medical imaging and treatment technologies as well as production of advanced materials with new and unique properties are well under way.

So what’s the problem?

Many substances act differently when they are produced as nanomaterials. What is normally safe for humans could cause significant health impacts when manufactured on the nano-scale. For example, normal silver is well understood in modern science. We generally know when and where it’s safe and appropriate to use. But nano sized silver particles are a different story. It inhibits the growth of bacteria. That’s a great quality for making odour-resistant socks and other products, but there are legitimate concerns about nanosilver inhibiting the production of good bacteria as well. Plus, because nanoparticles are so small it’s hard to know where they could wind up. Put simply, the medical effects of inhaling or ingesting different kinds of nanoparticles are not yet understood.

The biggest concern for workers is that the rapid advancement of nanotechnologies has outpaced government’s ability to control and regulate it. There are no regulations to protect workers exposed to potentially harmful by products of production. There are no controls for nanopolution, caused by the breakdown of products containing nanoparticles in our landfills. Currently, less than 5 per cent of the research funds going into nanotechnology are used to determine the impact of nanoparticles on the health of humans, animals and the environment.

What should be done?

CUPE is calling on both government and industry to establish a clear, top down research strategy for new nanotechnology enhanced products. The creation of a federal advisory committee that allows transparent input from labour groups and publicly funded research would help determine what environmental and health impacts are caused by new nano-sized particles. Companies must set a base level of research funds dedicated to the health and safety of the products being developed. They need to be held legally responsible if their new products harm workers, end users or the environment.