The dangers of nanotechnology, a warning to consumers
by Sylvia Maurer
Although there is potential benefit to consumers, nanomaterials can also pose new threats to human health and the environment - warns consumer group
Everyday products from clothes to children's toys can contain nanomaterials. Nanotechnologies use materials on an incredibly small scale - one nanometer is 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. However, what distinguishes materials at the nanoscale is not their exceptional size but the different physical and chemical properties they acquire as a consequence. Although there is potential benefit to consumers, nanomaterials can also pose new threats to human health and the environment.
According to experts, the increased use of nanosilver in daily products could contribute to the development of anti-microbial resistance. In general, current studies assessing the safety level of nanomaterials provide inadequate health and safety reassurance. Therefore the European Consumer Organisation was hoping for an adequate response when the European Commission revealed its plans for European Union action regarding nanomaterials last week. Regrettably, these hopes were shattered as the European Commission disregarded calls from the European Parliament, consumer groups and environmental non-governmental organisations to force nanomaterial producers to be transparent about the substances they use and to improve pre-market testing.
We believe that as with any other chemical, the 'no data, no market' rule should also apply to nanomaterials. This rule says that unless there is clear evidence a product is safe, it should be banned from shops. It is a cause for concern that manufacturers can continue to put a product on the market whose safety has not been properly proven. The argument against stricter regulation of nanomaterial is very often that it could hamper innovation and create a competitive disadvantage for European industry. However, the trust of consumers in new technologies is a precondition for their success. Unfortunately, it seems that once again consumers and the environment have lost out to innovation and economic growth.
We expected the commission to commit to a review of its chemicals legislation, REACH, to close loopholes on nanomaterials. As it stands, REACH is ill-equipped to deal with nanomaterials. Amending REACH could help counter the still considerable risks to the safety of consumers and the environment. The threshold for registering nanoproducts with the European Chemicals Agency remains far too high. The current one tonne threshold should be lowered from to 10 kilogrammes. Furthermore, all nanomaterials should be considered 'new substances' and should necessitate safety testing before use. Moreover, there is insufficient transparency on which products and services use nanomaterials.
What consumers need and what we are calling for is a mandatory reporting scheme for manufacturers to specify in which products they use nanomaterial and in what quantity. In this context, it is all the more damaging that the commission does not presently intend to establish an EU-wide nanomaterial registry, as will be done in France at national level in 2013. Consumers and public authorities will therefore continue to be left unaware of the nanomaterials commonly found in European homes and workplaces. Shoppers should be told if a product contains nanomaterials before they purchase them and authorities must be aware so that they can assess their safety.
Beyond our call to amend REACH, there is a need to more clearly define the term 'nanomaterial'. We are critical of the definition put forward by the commission in 2010. Despite the opinion of the commission's scientific risk assessment committee, the threshold of nanoparticles needed to qualify as a nanomaterial has been raised from 0.15 per cent to 50 per cent. This is problematic because many new materials which should be the focus of additional safety testing could escape from nano-specific requirements. This needs to be urgently corrected. All of these goals can only be achieved by amending REACH or the adoption of new nanomaterial specific legislation. By excluding any significant legislative moves, the commission is closing the door on that possibility.
Sylvia Maurer is safety and environment senior policy officer at the European Consumer Organisation BEUC
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I think that if a risk is shown in nanotechnology, serious action should be taken as life could possibly be at risk. However, I also think nanotechnology is very good for lighter and stronger sports products.
Lele - Norwich