A top Finnish expert:
Let us not allow the 20th century asbestos catastrophe
to be followed by a nano catastrophe
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
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.
magazine Palkkatyöläinen published his insights, presented in a trade union seminar, on
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
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
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://nanoaction.org/detail/news.cfm?news_id=205&id=244).
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".