NGOs urge precautionary principle in use of nanomaterials

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As lack of scientific data on nanotech’s health and environmental risks impedes the development of specific legislation, NGOs call for the application of the precautionary principle. “The need for more evidence does not have to stop us from taking action now,” they claim.

“The production of nanomaterials is increasing rapidly and they have broad applications (tennis balls, cosmetics, electronic equipments, cleaning products, stain- free surface coatings) even if their health, environment and safety aspects are not known yet,” said Commission official Eva Hellsten in a Green Week session on ‘Future Scenarios for Human Health and the Environment’ on 13 June 2007.

She explained that the EU’s approach to nanotechnologies is ‘safe, integrated and responsible’ and presented two range of issues currently under EU examination: 

  • Regulatory aspects – making an inventory of existing regulation and checking whether nanotechnologies are already covered by other community legislation, thus defining the legislative framework, considering both implementation and enforcement tools for this specific framework, and; 
  • improving knowledge base – conducting nanotech risk assessment, considering risk management and studying toxicity, ecotoxicity, as well as human and environmental exposure to nanomaterials.

“Environmental and health risks of nanomaterials are in principle covered by the EU regulatory framework. However, implementation of the legal framework remains difficult because of scientific knowledge gaps [on nanomaterials] and a fast-evolving market for products,” said Hellsten.

"Will we slam the stable door after the horse has bolted?" asked Benedicte Paviot, moderator of the session, using a metaphor to raise a question on the urgency of nanotech regulation.  

"Current scientific risk-assessment methods [for nanomaterials] are really not reliable. We don't have the knowledge. Nanomaterials are so small and reactive and we don't have natural defences in the body against them," said Eva Hellsten, from the Commission's DG Environment, Directorate Water, Chemicals and Cohesion.

Hellsten added that inclusion of nanomaterials in the Reach chemicals regulation that entered into force on 1 July 2007 is "somewhat problematic". "Nanomaterials resemble chemicals, but the novel nanomaterial properties being developed make them different," she said. 

But Erwin Annys, speaking for the chemical industry group CEFIC, was more convinced that no specific nanomaterial regulation is needed as "nanomaterials are already covered by the current Reach legislation". 

Aleksandra Kordecka, chemicals campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe (FoE) said that the "opportunities for improvement in the next Reach, set to take place 2012, include the inclusion of new substances, such as nanoparticles, to the law. 

With regards Reach, she said that FoE "is quite seriously concerned that it will not be properly implemented and afraid that future reviews will weaken the law".

"More money in the EU's Seventh framework programme for research (FP7) goes towards the development of new nanomaterials rather than studying their health and environmental effects," a representative of Friends of the Earth pointed out, urging more coherence between stated policy priorities and final actions. She also said that ensuring nanomaterials safety has been an issue for re-insurance companies, due to lack of proper health-risk assessment.

Lisette van Vliet, toxics policy advisor at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) said: "There is a huge gap between what science tells us about chemicals and the policy methods used to protect health." 

She illustrated how, between 1970 and 2000, the regulation on methylmercury has become stricter as more scientific evidence and knowledge has been gained and urged the application of the precautionary principle. "The need for more research and evidence does not have to stop us from taking action now."

According to a recent Eurobarometer (June 2006), Europeans do not perceive nanotech as risky; rather, they support its development, perceive it as being useful to society and morally acceptable and have far greater confidence in regulation than for example their transatlantic counterparts in the US or Canada. 

Industry is increasingly using nanotechnology in sectors such as healthcare (medicine), consumer products (food, electronics, cosmetics), information technology and the environment. However, major gaps remain concerning the exposure risks associated with nanomaterials. 

The potential risks of nanotechnology include the risk to health of nanoparticles and materials as the nanoparticles can be inhaled, swallowed, absorbed through skin or injected into the body, whereas the behaviour of nanoparticles inside the body is not as yet known. As to environmental risks, the effects of free nanoparticles on the air or water are also unknown. 

While nanotech products are already being mass-produced, the political debate on regulating nanotechnologies is just beginning. The EU's Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENHIR), which has analysed whether the current nanotech risk-assessments are good enough for developing legislation, came to the Conclusion (2006) that improvement is needed.

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