History Haunts Unions

Gwyneth K. Shaw Photo(NHI Nanoblog) TEMPE, Ariz.—As nanotechnology moves (slowly) from the laboratory to the factory, workers are on the front lines—though you wouldn’t know that from the shop floor.

Like new technologies from the printing press to the Internet, nano is touted as a way to make products work better, potentially reshaping the employment landscape.

And, like prior scientific and chemical breakthroughs, nanotechnology may bear some risk for workers. Already, ultra-tiny substances like carbon nanotubes and nano-sized titanium dioxide have drawn the attention of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which has moved to recommend limits for occupational exposure.

Decades ago, labor unions around the world might have been at the forefront of the debate over nanotechnology and workers. But researcher Noela Invernizzi, in a survey of international labor leaders, found that they’re not yet engaged in worrying about whether jobs will disappear as nano-enabled applications make a variety of products and processes more efficient.

But they are scared, said Invernizzi, a professor at the Federal University of Parana, in Brazil. They are scared that nano will become just another entry in the long list of occupational hazards—like asbestos, lead paint and silica—that went unchecked until workers started dying.

“Workers are the persons who are maybe the most exposed to risk,” Invernizzi (pictured) said, during a talk at the recent Third Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies. “They are very afraid of repeating history.”

The risk of exposure runs from the birth of a product, during the manufacturing process, to its death, when it’s destroyed, recycled or otherwise broken apart.

Nanotechnology leverages the often amazing properties of super-small engineered particles (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter). These tiny materials can make airplane wings stronger, through the introduction of nearly weightless carbon nanotubes, or make exterior paint self-cleaning with nano-titanium dioxide.

There is broad agreement that these substances show great promise in a wide variety of areas, from cancer treatments to electronics. Shrinking these materials, however, sometimes changes the way they interact with the world around them, raising serious questions about their impact on health and the environment.

Scientists are racing to understand and quantify any danger, while regulators struggle to protect people, animals and the environment without going overboard. As a result, there are few nano-specific laws on the books. The NIOSH recommendations, for example, are just that: Guidelines that stand little chance of becoming binding regulations through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which governs workplaces.

Invernizzi said she thinks that nanotechnology isn’t a big priority for unions in part because they’re facing so many challenges now, from declining membership to fading political power, especially in the United States. One AFL-CIO leader she interviewed said he wasn’t seeing nanotechnology on the shop floor.

In contrast, environmental groups and consumer advocates are expressing concern about the health risks that might be associated with nanotechnology. Invernizzi suspects that’s because they slid into nano after probing the issue of genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs, a topic labor didn’t pay much attention to.

The AFL-CIO official told Invernizzi that he felt as if unions were “walking blind” when it comes to nano, both because they don’t know what workers are being exposed to, and because the risks associated with the substances that are being used are unclear. Invernizzi said she herself had had a difficult time prying information out of companies about what they’re using, a contrast with prior research she’s done on workplace issues.

The biggest issue, she said, is trust: Labor leaders don’t have confidence in employers to be honest, or in regulators to help.

“They have this feeling that time is running out,” Invernizzi said. “That maybe we are losing the opportunity to do it right this time.”

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