STANDING COMMITTEE ON STATE DEVELOPMENT
Report: Nanotechnology in New South Wales
Debate resumed from 29 October 2008.
The Hon. TONY CATANZARITI
[2.58 p.m.]: I am pleased to speak to report No. 33 of the Standing Committee on State Development entitled "Nanotechnology in New South Wales". This report arose from terms of reference by the then Minister for Science and Medical Research, the Hon. Verity Firth, MP. The terms of reference adopted by the committee required it to report on a wide range of issues, such as the current and future applications of nanotechnology in New South Wales industry and the community, health, safety and environmental risks and benefits of the technology, and the level of understanding within the general community.
We were also required to look at the appropriateness of the current regulatory framework regarding the management of nanomaterials over their life cycle and the adequacy of existing education and skills development opportunities related to nanotechnology.
I am thankful to the Minister for referring this reference to the committee, as it led to the committee undertaking a report of considerable importance. It is of importance because New South Wales is one of the first jurisdictions in the world to take a look at nanotechnology from a parliamentary perspective, taking into consideration possible impacts on social issues and the community, impacts upon the environment, and the technology's impacts on regulatory bodies and legislation that underpins those bodies. Thus the committee's work in this area was of considerable importance not just to New South Wales but also to other States, which all took a great interest in our work. A large number of experts from universities around the nation monitored our work.
The committee's report has also attracted international interest. Indeed, the committee is thankful to Dr Clayton Teague, the Director of the United States National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, for the briefing he provided the committee early in the inquiry process. It was very helpful for the committee to be able to meet with such a knowledgeable person early in its deliberations and evidence gathering. The report shows that nanotechnology is not actually one field of science, or one technique, or one process that can actually be defined. Nanotechnology is really a catch-all term for a range of sciences, processes and techniques that deal with the research, measurement, construction, manipulation, and utilisation of incredibly small particles of material. For nanotechnology to be readily understood, one must realise that we are talking about working with incredibly small objects, down to the size of 1 to 300 nanometres. To put that into some perspective, human hair is 80,000 nanometres wide, and 260 objects 300 nanometres wide would stretch across the thickness of a single human hair.
Another important aspect to remember about nanotechnology is that when we start to work with and manipulate quite normal, everyday materials at this size, interesting changes occur to the fundamental accepted behaviour and properties of those materials, so that quite astounding and unexpected changes, results and products can arise from these new products. These changes for modem science are as interesting, and important, as similar observations of changed materials in the past. Again to put that into perspective, we might consider what happened many centuries ago when people took a white rock and ground it into a black-powdered material. Conversely, a black rock could be ground and achieve a white powder. These things once were astounding. Talcum powder, for example, ground from soapstone and applied as a white liquid glaze to ceramics in the potter's kiln, results in a lovely blue finish of very high durability. Another use sees the incorporation of small amounts of talc in stoneware to improve strength and vitrification. These are processes that were, at one earlier stage in the evolution of technology, startling and unexpected results extracted from the softest mineral we have.
The research endeavours to understand and explain the above simple examples then led to profound changes to the sciences, and from there to other quite unexpected fields of human endeavour. This is where we are at today with nanotechnology. Science is endeavouring to understand the principles and practices of similar unexpected results that occur when quite common and well-known materials are subject to the new tools, skills and sciences of nanotechnology. And just as the simple manipulation or perhaps macro-technology related to soapstone led to revolutionary new products and scientific understanding in different times, so we are now on the cusp of a new revolution that will undoubtedly affect and change the way humans view the world and how we live in the world.
As with all technology, nanotechnology is will have fundamental and wide-ranging impacts on our society. Some witnesses described our future under nanotechnology as a new industrial revolution. Honourable members will be aware of the profound and fundamental changes that the industrial revolution wrought upon the world. It brought great changes to finance, production, and the social conditions for the working, labouring and farming classes, and it quite literally changed the face of the earth. Public hygiene, waste removal, sullage lines, and safer drinking water supply is one area of transformation, and of course a standout is medicine. Most of these changes were, for most of the people, welcome. As we know, however, many people have been badly affected by newly introduced technologies and materials—from x-ray machine operators in the early days, to the women who painted radium onto watch faces, to medical breakthroughs that promised so much but sadly delivered thalidomide children.
The committee heard a lot about asbestos because of its similarity to nanomaterials. It is a good example, as it underscores a number of important points about the industrial revolution, the introduction of new materials into the biosphere, and the regulatory and safety systems for public safety, worker safety and, as we now recognise, the safety of the environment. Asbestos had long been recognised as a dangerous substance before it was completely regulated by being banned, and in many respects the evolution of this ban reflects the growth in regulatory reform across the world to control dangerous substances. The ancient Greeks and Romans noted the lung damage in the slaves who worked to make asbestos cloth. The first western recognition of the dangers of asbestos occurred in the annual report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops for the year 1898, in which the chief inspector made recommendations to improve the safety of workers who processed this "sharp material". It was not until the 1930s that more solid evidence linking asbestos to serious illness solidified. After the hugely increased use of asbestos throughout the world's navies during the Second World War, the link became firmly established and the use of asbestos became more and more tightly regulated until its ban in Australia in 1991.
The committee closely inspected the regulation of nanotechnology in regard to its safety. While nanotechnology will undoubtedly have impacts on the regulatory framework, and some nanomaterial will have negative health consequences, the public should be fairly confident that unlike asbestos the newer materials will be closely scrutinised, problems will be recognised far earlier, and regulation, and, if necessary, bans, will occur much faster. Leading the health concerns are scientists working with nanomaterials. No-one who gave evidence to the inquiry denied that this area was not a concern, or did not require scrutiny, and all were well aware that some materials would in fact have negative health impacts.
It must be remembered, however, that systems for detecting problems are now more advanced. For instance, increased public awareness of the dangers of chemicals and materials. Not so long ago such concerns did not exist, and as a young man I, like many farmers, practised chemical handling procedures that scare me today. Farmers would mix dangerous chemicals with their bare hands and apply them without proper protective clothing or appropriate dust or gas masks. Today, the vast majority of farmers are aware of the dangers of chemicals and fertilisers, and use them minimally.
Now numerous agencies evaluate materials safety, such as the Department of Health and Ageing's National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme, various State and Federal departments dealing with occupational health and safety such as WorkCover NSW, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, the Hazardous Substances Information System, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, along with compensation tribunals and, of course, unions and other interest groups. The recommendations of the committee address virtually all requests made for the introduction of a national mandatory labelling scheme, the promotion of nanomaterial workplace safety systems to regulate the whole-of-life cycle of nanomaterials, and the provision of information and education to the public regarding the science and use of nanomaterials.
The committee has also made a range of recommendations to ensure that New South Wales is well positioned to take advantage of the new science of nanotechnology. These recommendations include setting up a nanotechnology unit to act as a coordination point for a whole-of-government approach to nanotechnology issues and to engage with industry in the promotion of the technology. Recommendations were made to establish government and university working groups to examine the education, skills, and knowledge requirements to support nanotechnology in New South Wales, and for government agencies to provide funding grants for the development of nanotechnology materials and the products that contain them.
During the inquiry the committee examined the usefulness of a position of New South Wales Chief Scientist to determine research priorities and to take a lead role in exciting new areas such as nanotechnology. In May 2008 I wrote to the then Minister for Science and Medical Research, the Hon, Verity Firth, to draw her attention to the evidence received by the committee during its public hearings. On 23 October 2008 Premier Rees announced that Professor Mary O'Kane had been appointed as the first New South Wales Chief Scientist and Scientific Engineer. This position will no doubt augment and consolidate the work being done by other government scientists throughout numerous agencies, and will enhance the valuable work they contribute to society. One of her many important duties is to advise government on major public policy issues such as climate change, genetically modified foods and nanotechnology.
On behalf of the committee I extend my gratitude to the many people who contributed to the inquiry, especially the staff of the various research institutions and industries involved in nanotechnology who welcomed us into their workplaces and shared their expert knowledge with us. I appreciate the efforts of my fellow committee members in coming to grips with this fascinating but complex area of science. My thanks must also go to the committee secretariat for their efforts in supporting the inquiry. I believe that the committee has produced an important report. I commend to the House the report of the Standing Committee on State Development into nanotechnology in New South Wales.
The Hon. MATTHEW MASON-COX
[3.13 p.m.]: I acknowledge the work of the Standing Committee on State Development in preparation of its report on nanotechnology in New South Wales. I commend the chairman of the committee, the Hon. Tony Catanzariti, for his leadership, insight and vision in this very complex but interesting area. I also acknowledge the secretariat's hard work in putting together such a detailed report with very important recommendations as to how we move forward. Not only is this area important to the future of the economy, it has also promised to deliver all manner of ingenious products and solutions to some of the problems that currently affect science. I also acknowledge the other members of the committee—Deputy Chair the Hon. Melinda Pavey, Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile, the Hon. Christine Robertson and, last but not least, the Hon. Michael Veitch—who all made a significant contribution to the inquiry.
When the committee members saw the terms of reference of the inquiry they questioned what they had got themselves into. Nanotechnology covers a broad area but is based on the science of small things, but at the conclusion of the inquiry the committee realised it had embarked on a very colourful and interesting journey. The range of matters brought to our attention was nothing short of a paradigm shift from the potential that could flow from research and the development of products using the science of nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology is the science of very small things, almost at molecular level—one times 10 to the minus nine—and can create the least expected outcomes. Indeed, when materials that operate in one manner at a higher molecular level are reduced and ordered in a particular way at that molecular level they will produce different outcomes and exhibit different characteristics. That has potential applications in areas such as health and pharmaceuticals, and in materials as common as graphite—the reordering of graphite molecules to create stronger and more robust structures for use in everyday activities.
The committee had the opportunity to see where the technology might lead down the line for products that we now take for granted. The premise of many of submissions received was that the current regulatory regime that exists in New South Wales although appropriate should be subject to the committee's review. New South Wales has a very robust regime in relation to occupational health and safety and food labelling but because nanotechnologies exhibit different qualities and characteristics we need to be cognisant of the fact that the existing regulatory regime may not be sufficient in some cases, and we were careful to explore that. In the areas of labelling and occupational health and safety particularly, the committee has taken a precautionary principle to heart to ensure that the possible risks are reviewed and that we err on the side of caution. The health and safety of employees of companies that manufacture nanotechnology materials, as well as consumer requirements, need to be protected from any unexpected consequences that may arise from the use of these wonderful products.
I commend the committee's recommendations to the House. I hope the Government will implement them. However, to date, from an industrial point of view, the Government's approach to nanotechnology has been a little slow. The response of Victoria and South Australia to nanotechnology has been much more proactive with a can-do attitude. I reflect on recent comments by the Premier about making New South Wales the can-do State. Perhaps he could look at the way we set up our industrial responses to new technologies, such as nanotechnology. One recommendation of the committee was to set up a whole-of-government contact point for nanotechnology. We need a much stronger industry focus within government, particularly in relation to the development of a national response to the regulation of nanotechnology, where required. I hasten to add that New South Wales could adopt the philosophy of the Victorian Government, which focussed on what it can deliver for its State from new technology such as nanotechnology. This Government needs to adopt that can-do, on-the-ground approach, rather than the rhetoric we often hear from it.
I note the comments by previous speakers about the Office of the Chief Scientist. The committee had a strong view that New South Wales must up the ante in relation to our focus on science. I am delighted to note the comments by the Chair of the committee, the Hon. Tony Catanzariti, who spoke about the appointment of a chief scientist in New South Wales. That is a very positive step. We must ensure that we build upon that by delivering practical outcomes and leveraging off the science base in our State, rather than taking it for granted. We have a significant scientific base in New South Wales. In particular, the CSIRO and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and related metrology units form an important base for the future in this exciting area.
The Committee undertook a site visit of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. It was fascinating to see the level of technology that is available and the challenges science faces on a daily basis in relation to understanding materials that can be created with nanotechnology. Those challenges include understanding the capabilities and uses of materials, replicating the outcomes achieved in a science laboratory and ensuring the replications are consistent and safe. I commend the recommendations of the committee to the House. It was an exciting inquiry to be involved in. New South Wales must embrace this can-do technology and industry to ensure that we become the premier State once more.
Reverend the Hon. FRED NILE
[3.23 p.m.]: As a member of the Standing Committee on State Development I am pleased to participate in this debate on report No. 33, entitled "Nanotechnology in New South Wales". As was stated by the Chair of the committee, the inquiry was established on 6 December 2007 when the committee adopted terms of reference provided by the then Minister for Science and Medical Research, the Hon. Verity Firth. Nanotechnology is a new field. For all committee members it was a learning experience gained from our visits to the centres developing nanotechnology and submissions from a wide range of stakeholders, including universities, federally funded research entities, trade unions, private companies, and business and consumer representative bodies. A great deal has been happening in nanotechnology behind the scenes that members of Parliament and the public were not aware of. Nanotechnology can be a frightening development because of a lack of knowledge or ignorance.
What is nanotechnology? A nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre. As it was explained to us on one visit, a nanometre is one thousandth of the thickness of the edge of a sheet of paper. It is difficult to grasp the concept. Most nanomaterials can be seen only with the aid of scientific instruments. Because of the newness of the science, some witnesses asked whether a moratorium should be placed on it. The committee found that it would be impractical to recommend or support a moratorium on nanotechnology or nanomaterial as they are broad descriptive terms rather than specific entities. However, the committee considered there was a need for regulators to continue to monitor research, to identify specific causes for concern and to respond accordingly to any risk that may be identified. We found a lack of knowledge about not only the technology but also the companies involved in the manufacture of nanomaterials. At the time, there did not seem to be a consistent system of record. A system may have developed as a result of our inquiry. We were told that the exact number of companies that manufacture or use nanomaterials in New South Wales is unknown, but estimates put it at 23 to 40.
The Government, possibly through WorkCover, should set up a system to record the companies conducting investigations into nanotechnology or manufacturing nanomaterials. I do not suggest an investigation of such companies for the purposes of threatening their existence—to close them down. I suggest that the system monitor the companies involved and establish co-operation between them and the Government. Because it is new technology, some companies we visited indicated they want to keep their work a secret. They want to maintain confidentiality about their discoveries. That is understandable; if they develop a unique approach, their intellectual knowledge may give them an advantage in the industry. They do not want other companies knowing what they are doing. One company in particular was very secretive—not that it was doing anything wrong, it just did not want the competition to know what it was doing. It would be a matter for WorkCover to gather the information whilst ensuring there is no breach of commercial-in-confidence information. Companies spend a great deal of money on developing their products and they do not want their competitors gaining any advantage.
The committee members were on a steep learning curve. Obviously, the public does not know a great deal about nanotechnology. To relieve any fear of the unknown, we must educate the public to understand nanotechnology. The Government must give consideration to who would conduct this education campaign. It is important that it be done, otherwise scare tactics will be adopted, as occurred with genetically modified food and other issues, and the public will react in a fearful way. That is an important future role of the Government. The committee recommended that consumers be advised of the presence of nanomaterials in food products, particularly until we gain more knowledge about any associated risks. The committee recommended an amendment to the national Food Standards Code to require labels to identify the presence of material on a nanoscale.
One area of concern that was raised by witnesses and during our committee deliberations was nanomaterials in sunscreens. That issue has been mentioned in the media, and it needs to be monitored carefully. The committee believed there was a strong case for having labelling on sunscreen and cosmetics indicate the presence of nanoscale materials because it is possible that nanomaterials could enter the human body when sunscreen is applied or cosmetics are used on the skin.
Pursuant to standing orders business interrupted and set down as an order of the day for a future day.