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The National Science Foundation's Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS), housed at UC Santa Barbara, recently hosted a major conference on health and safety in laboratories and industrial workplaces employing nanotechnology.
This conference, "Nanotechnology and Occupational Health and Safety," was the first to bring union leaders together with industrial hygienists, social scientists, public policy officials, and scientists to examine issues relating to potential risks for nanotechnology - a topic which has been below the radar for organized labor in the United States.
Nanotechnology is predicted to contribute to a $3 trillion industry within the coming decade. Global public spending stands today at $6.4 billion, an amount matched by the private sector. The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative alone has spent $8.3 billion over the past seven years, including $1.4 billion requested for 2008. Yet, as Richard Appelbaum, conference organizer and UCSB Professor of Sociology and Global & International Studies, pointed out in his welcoming remarks, too little attention is being paid to health and safety issues in the laboratories and factories that work with nanomaterials.
"While some concern has been raised about the safety of nano-enabled products for consumers, it is equally important to bring attention to the producers of those products, whether in laboratories or factories," said Appelbaum. "China, for example, has a growing number of firms that are producing nanopowders for laboratory use, as well as for products such as cosmetics, paints, and even kitchen sinks. Under what conditions are these nanopowders being made in China? How are they used when they arrive in the lab or factory?"
The keynote address was delivered by Joan Denton, director of the California Office Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). During her talk, Denton spoke of how nanotechnology has developed since physicist Richard Feynman's now classic presentation at Cal Tech nearly a half century ago, when he announced "there's plenty of room at the bottom." Other conference highlights included:
John Barlow Weiner, Associate Counsel for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, whose presentation included an overview of current regulations of nanotechnology in the lab and workplace;
Jim Willis, Director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chemical Control Division, who discussed the EPA's forthcoming Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program which will identify and use a basic set of risk management practices in developing and commercializing nanoscale materials;
Sam Lipson, Director of Environmental Health, City of Cambridge, Massachusetts; Lee Dillard Adams, Deputy Regional Director, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection; and Javiera Barandiaran, public policy graduate student at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy who explained local and state approaches to regulation;
Claire Auplat, Postdoctoral Researcher at the UK's Imperial College, and Kevin Rowan, Regional Secretary for the North British Trades Union Congress, who provided insight to European approaches to nanotechnology risks in the workplace;
Nancy Lessin, Health and Safety Consultant for the United Steelworkers, who observed that it may be difficult to get American workers interested in nanotechnology, since they still are still concerned with old-fashioned workplace hazards; and
John Froines, Director of UCLA's Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, who argued that there are strong concerns for worker health from exposure to nanoparticles, while the 30-year-old federal framework (the Toxic Substances Control Act) is inadequate to the task.
The unifying theme of the conference was that labor and management should pay close attention to the new technology and scientific evidence about its risks; and that the scientific community should be aware of workplace concerns and the history of occupational health and safety issues that have been important with past technologies. The conference included reports on the experience of previous technologies, where this message was not fully appreciated - often, as in the case of asbestos or GMOs, with disastrous results.
"It is irresponsible and short-sighted to wait for an industrial accident to occur, before taking proactive steps to address potential lab and workplace health and safety concerns," said Appelbaum. "The people who work with nanomaterials - from lab techs to industrial workers - confront known and unknown risks. These risks need to be addressed."
The conference was organized jointly by CNS; Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program; UCLA's Centers for Occupational and Environmental Health and International Science, Technology, and Cultural Policy; and UC Lead Campus for NanoToxicology Research and Training.
The mission of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara is to serve as a national research and education center, a network hub among researchers and educators concerned with nanotechnologies’ societal impacts, and a resource base for studying these impacts in the US and abroad.
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Center for Nanotechnology in Society
1131 North Hall
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
Tel. (805) 893-8850
Fax (805) 893-7995
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