UNIONS are demanding urgent regulation of the nanotechnology industry, citing mounting evidence that some tiny particles used in products such as sunscreens and cosmetics could be as harmful as asbestos.
The ACTU is pushing for closer oversight of the rapidly growing industry, which contributes to more than 800 products including bedsheets, building materials and paints.
Little is known about the effects of nanoparticles - which are 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair - but one study reveals that one particle shares some characteristics of asbestos fibres and has a similar effect on mice.
"It's a very new product. The tests thus far are ringing alarm bells for us," said ACTU assistant secretary Geoff Fary.
"And so what we're saying is that we need to err on the side of caution.
"Just as asbestos, when it was first used, was considered a miracle product, and it was only after many years that people realised how devastating it was, we don't want to repeat the same mistake here."
Among the ACTU's demands are a national registry of all companies and organisations manufacturing, importing and supplying products containing nanomaterials, a labelling requirement for products containing nanomaterials, and for agencies to develop nanotechnology handling standards.
Thomas Faunce, an associate professor in the medical school and the college of law at the Australian National University, said that, while nanotechnology had enormous potential, regulations were needed to tackle the special properties of nanotechnology.
"Nanotechnology may be critical for our capacity to respond to the major global health crises that society is facing, particularly climate change, so we've got to embrace nanotechnology, but we've got to embrace safe nanotechnology," he said.
"Industry is racing ahead, developing all sorts of nano applications for various things and we feel as if it's racing ahead a bit too fast, and that we shouldn't just be waiting until the next paper gets published in Nature showing that another nanoparticle is dangerous," he said. "This is not the way to go about a systematic approach to regulation."
A report from a NSW parliamentary committee last year recommended changes to require the labelling of products containing nanoparticles.
The new national occupational health and safety body, Safe Work Australia, is conducting research on the implications of the technology.
Overseas, a recent report by the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work identified nanoparticles as one of the greatest risks for workers.
The European Parliament last month adopted a report recommending foods produced with nanotechnology be required to undergo risk assessment and be clearly labelled.
The French Government has proposed legislation to regulate the manufacture, import and marketing of products containing nanoparticles.