EU struggles to legislate tiny substances

By Stefan Sigaard Weichert and Luc Rinaldi.

A widespread lack of information on nanomaterials is preventing decision makers in the European Union from developing new measures to cover the potentially harmful tiny particles. A Member of European Parliament is calling for nanomaterials to be incorporated into the current chemical legislation, while lobbyists say the legislation should be left as is. 

Dan Jørgensen have been a member of the European Parliament since 2004 for the danish party Socialdemokraterne.
Dan Jørgensen has been a member of the European Parliament since 2004 for the Danish party Socialdemokraterne. Photo: Luc Rinaldi

“I think that it is clear that nanomaterials are not properly regulated. There is a legislation, but the problem is that it doesn’t address nanomaterials specifically. It’s still a very unknown area, and we do not know what it can do,” says Dan Jørgensen, a Member of European Parliament for the Socialists and Democrats.

Nanomaterials – particles between 1 and 100 nanometres, or 800 times smaller than a human hair – are widely used substances, found in sprays, food and a number of other everyday products. While the risks of some nanomaterials are well documented (for example, nanosilver, which is used in paints, washing machines and antibacterial, is toxic and can affect living cells), the dangers of others aren’t yet known.

“When I first heard of this, I thought, ‘Let’s ban it, but when you look into it, you can see that it also has big potential. Nanomaterials can be efficient for the environment, cure diseases that we never thought we could heal, and do so many other good things. So it’s a balance,” says Dan Jørgensen, adding that it would be best to rewrite the EU´s current chemical legislation, REACH, so it covers nanomaterials.

But Lone Mikkelsen, chemicals policy officer for the Danish Ecological Council, does not support the idea of opening the REACH legislation. Instead, she proposes the creation of a “nano patch,” a separate piece of legislation specifically targeting nanomaterials.

“At first, we wanted a REACH revision because they could add revisions to the text for nanomaterials,” she says. “But the Commission argued that the industry could be too strong economically and actually water down the legal text.”

Lobbyists representing the nanoindustry also say that opening the text isn’t the solution, arguing that it would create uncertainty within the industry.

READ MORE: Lack of information prevents action on tiny substances with unknown effects

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