The European Commission came under fire from Greens and consumer groups yesterday (3 October) for a report on nanotechnology, which stopped short of proposing specific EU regulation.
Nanotechnology, the Commission said, was currently covered by REACH chemicals legislation, which it described as the “best framework” for dealing with its use and effects. The Commission said it expected to modify some of the REACH annexes to include nanomaterials.
The report outlined the need to analyse the potential environmental and health risks posed by nanomaterials on a case-by-case basis, since there was as yet no accepted definition for the microscopic particles.
“It can be concluded”, the paper said, “that current legislation covers to a large extent risks in relation to nanomaterials and that risks can be dealt with under the current legislative framework”.
But the EU executive admitted that there was a lack of information currently available over the risks posed by nanotechnology.
“Current legislation may have to be modified in the light of new information becoming available”, the report said.
The European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) said the Commission report confirmed the “EU regulatory framework works for nanomaterials”, and ensured these can be safely produced and used by companies and consumers”.
A CEFIC executive director, Peter Smith, said the term ‘nano’ was merely an indication of size, not a specific property, meaning that they do not need to be referred to specifically in EU chemical regulation. He said REACH “adequately covers nanomaterials”.
Smith said the potential risk should be analysed on a case by case basis, as outlined by the EU paper.
He added: “Nanomaterials offer real potential to improve the quality of life in many areas. Our industry is committed to work with stakeholders to contribute to transparency and a pragmatic approach to implementing EU legislation applicable to these materials."
The Greens in the European Parliament criticised the Commission for “dragging its feet” in nanomaterials regulation in a statement. The group said the Parliament had underlined “clear deficiencies” in reviews of existing legislation.
“The Commission has dodged the key issue by comparing nanomaterials with normal substances on the sole basis that not all nanomaterials may be toxic”, said Carl Schlyter, a Swedish MEP and Greens environment and public health spokesperson.
“It is highly misleading to suggest that the generic rules of REACH, designed for normal substances, are appropriate for nanomaterials, and contradictory to the calls for a case-by-case approach for the risk assessment of nanomaterials”, he added.
Schlyter also flagged the Commission for its lack of progress in improving transparency on nanomaterials and products.
The lack of information, he said, had triggered a number of member states, such as France, to move forward with national registers, a move initially blocked by the Commission.
A Parliament insider told EURACTIV the Commission was treating nanomaterials regulation with caution, to avoid a similar situation to that of GMOs, where public opinion was “badly managed”, he said.
The European consumer organisation BEUC lamented what it saw as a lack of focus on consumer protection in a statement, calling on the Commission to force nanomaterials producers to be more transparent in the chemicals they use and to improve pre-market testing.
Despite the EU paper saying measures on nanotechnologies "must be based on the precautionary principle", BEUC's director general, Monique Goyens, said this was not the case.
“As with any other chemical, the ‘no data, no market’ rule should also apply to nanomaterials”, she said in a statement, adding it was a “cause for concern that manufacturers can continue to put a product on the market whose safety has not been properly proven”.
Stephen Russell, secretary-general of ANEC, a European consumer standardisation group, said: “These technologies and the materials used may also present new risks”.
“We are therefore concerned about the increasing number of products containing nanomaterials that are sold on the European market without having been subject to a proper safety assessment."
However, Russell said he recognised that nanotechnologies have the potential to offer benefits to consumers.
Nanotechnologies use materials on an incredibly small scale. One nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre.
The unique properties and behaviour of nanoscale matter, and its enabling characteristics, mean new technologies could profoundly transform industry and everyday life. However, concerns have been raised over the ethical, legal and health issues associated with nanotechnologies.
The European Parliament, in a resolution of 24 April 2009, called on the Commission to strive for an internationally harmonised definition of the term nanomaterial. In October last year the Commission released a draft definition for consultation. The consultation ended in November last year, but the Commission has yet to publish a final definition.
The Commission launched a consultation on the Action Plan which ended in February last year.
- European Commission: Nanomaterials: Case by case safety approach for breakthrough technology
- European Commission communication: Regulatory Aspects of Nanomaterials
- European Commission: REACH