EU 'dragging its feet' on nanomaterials regulation
by Daniel Mason
The European Commission has been accused of "dragging its feet" over the regulation of the rapidly expanding nanomaterials sector and failing to enforce transparency in the way the products are used and tested.
In its second regulatory review on the subject, the commission said nanomaterials – used in everyday products such as clothes, toys and toothpaste – should continue to be evaluated in a similar way to normal chemicals and substances because some may be toxic and some not.
"Possible risks are related to specific nanomaterials and specific uses," the European Union executive said in a statement today. "Therefore, nanomaterials require a risk assessment, which should be performed on a case-by-case basis, using pertinent information."
But Green members of the European Parliament said the commission was "dragging its feet" and taking "nano-steps" when there was a "glaring need to provide proper EU-level regulation".
The group's environment and public health spokesman, Swedish MEP Carl Schlyter, said: "The commission has dodged the key issue by comparing nanomaterials with normal substances on the sole basis that not all nanomaterials may be toxic."
He said it was "highly misleading" to suggest that generic rules for normal chemicals and substances were appropriate for testing nanomaterials, and also warned that the commission had failed to increase the transparency of information relating to their use and impact.
The commission said it planned to create a web platform to improve the availability of information including any national or sector level registries, and launch an impact assessment to identify the best way to improve transparency and ensure regulatory oversight.
However, the European Consumer Organisation, BEUC, was also scathing in its criticism. "It is a cause for concern that manufacturers can continue to put a product on the market whose safety has not been properly proven," said director general Monique Goyens.
"It seems that once again consumers and the environment have lost out against innovation and economic. Consumers and public authorities will continue to be left unaware of the nanomaterials commonly found in European homes and workplaces."
She said that strict information and registration requirements were needed. "We should be told before buying such products and authorities need to be aware so that they can assess their safety."
The global nanomaterials market is estimated at €20bn, with the sector employing between 300,000 and 400,000 people in Europe alone. It is dominated by materials that have been used for many years, such as carbon black in tyres and synthetic amorphous silica in products such as toothpaste.
Nanomaterials are also found in clothes and children's toys, while more recent developments include their use in tumour therapies, batteries for electric cars and solar panels. According to the EU, by 2015 the global volume of products based on nanotechnology will grow to €2 trillion.
The commission said nanomaterials were "delivering major advances today and also had the potential to allow game-changing technological breakthroughs and rekindle economic growth".