European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

Workers' health at risk ?

Nanotechnologies are rapidly expanding in different industrial sectors such as pharmaceuticals, electronics and chemicals, which means that the number of workers exposed to nanomaterials is likely to rise sharply in the coming years. Relatively little is known about their toxic effects. Their impact on health and safety at work is hard to predict.

Some animal studies, however, suggest that some nanoparticles can cross the different protection barriers, spread throughout the body and accumulate in different organs. The most likely exposure pathways in workplaces are through the lungs and skin.

The reported toxic effects in animals and the physico-chemical characteristics of nanomaterials are good reasons for adopting a precautionary approach. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and its research institute ETUI believe that implementing strict preventive procedures is the only way to protect the workers engaged in developing, manufacturing or using nanomaterials.

Thus far, the European Union's nanotechnology strategy has been chiefly aimed at catching up the lag behind the US and Asia. The potential health risks posed by the commercial use of nanomaterials have only recently come onto the European Commission's agenda. The Commission does not at present see a need for specific binding legislation to protect workers and consumers - a view not shared by either Parliament or the European trade union movement. The ETUC wants the EU to strengthen the Community legislative framework in line with the precautionary principle.

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