Lack of research prevents action on tiny chemicals

By Stefan Sigaard Weichert and Luc Rinaldi.

Small particles called nanomaterials are slipping through the cracks of the European Union’s chemical legislation, but a lack of information on the subject makes politicians reluctant to regulate the growing nanoindustry. Scientists say more research is needed before these potentially harmful substances can be properly addressed.

“I’m worried, not for myself, but for my children,” says Kevin Stairs, Greenpeace’s EU chemicals policy director. “They’re the generation that grew up with sunscreen, and as a parent, I always used it for my children. Now I have my doubts. Was that really the best thing to do? It’s one big question mark.”

What’s worrying Kevin Stairs is nanomaterials – miniature particles 800 times smaller than a human hair – which are found in anything from sunscreen and childrens’ toys to milk and electronics. Titanium dioxide, a nanomaterial used in most sunscreens, can cause cancer and, because of its small size, has a unique ability to enter human lungs.

The risks, however, of other nanomaterials, aren’t as well established. While these small particles make computers run faster and could potentially cure diseases that can’t be remedied today, little is known about this relatively new area of science, making Kevin Stairs worried about its possible consequences.

And so far, the European Union hasn’t developed legislation particularly targeting the use of nanomaterials, creating concern that these tiny chemicals are slipping through the cracks of REACH, the EU’s chemical legislation.

Cosmetic products containing nanomaterials in the European Union will require a “(nano)” label following nano ingredients as of July 2013. Now stakeholders are discussing whether or not to require labelling on non-cosmetic products as well.

In theory, not in practice

“REACH covers nanomaterials theoretically, but it fails to cover them in practice. There are no specific demands for nanomaterials in the legislation, which is a problem because nanomaterials can act differently from the same chemical in a larger form,” says Steffen Foss Hansen, senior researcher at the Technical University of Denmark.

He says it is now unclear which nanomaterials should be tested and how. Nanomaterial manufacturers can register nanomaterials and their larger forms under the same chemical registration, treating them as one substance rather than two or more. This makes it impossible to determine whether a given nanomaterial is safe to use or not, says Steffen Foss Hansen.

“The EU needs to regulate this area so that industries provide information on their nanomaterials, which scientists need in order to do risk assessments to find out which materials are hazardous and which are safe,” he says.

Maila Puolamaa, a policy officer from the European Commission working with nanomaterials and REACH, agrees that nanomaterials need to be better covered. She says, however, that contradictory research results make it difficult to form conclusions about the potential dangers of nanomaterials, which has prevented the Commission from proposing new legislation to tackle them. The Commission will revisit nanomaterial registration by December 2013.

“REACH defines substance in a very broad way. Whether they are one size or another, they are all covered under the definition of substance. But we need to go on clarifying how nanomaterials are addressed within the legislation,” says Maila Puolamaa.

The regulation of nanomaterials falls under the authority of Enterprise and Industry, a branch of the European Commission. (Photo by Luc Rinaldi)
The regulation of nanomaterials falls under the authority of Enterprise and Industry, a branch of the European Commission. Photo: Luc Rinaldi.

‘Hanging onto life by teeth and fingernails’

That need for clarification is made more urgent by the fact that the nanomaterial industry is growing rapidly. It employs roughly 400,000 people within the European Union today, and products containing nanomaterials are expected to grow in volume to €2 trillion by 2015 from €200 billion in 2009. Maila Puolamaa is concerned that a potential new nano legislation could harm the growing nanoindustry.

“Too much regulation would cut the wings off small and medium enterprises and discourage them from trying new things,” she says. “It’s telling innovators: ‘Don’t touch this area.’ If we don’t find a balance, we will lose access to the opportunity to benefit from these new innovations and we’ll lose competition in the industry in Europe. Manufacturers will move out and go elsewhere.”

Steffi Friedrichs, director general of the Nanotechnology Industries Association, says that a change in REACH would create uncertainty in the nanoindustry, which would make it difficult for nanomaterial producers to attract investors. Reporting nanomaterials and standard chemicals separately, she says, would paralyze small enterprises.

“You are a small company. You have nine employees. You are hanging onto life by your teeth and fingernails. You have 27 different nanomaterials that are your whole livelihood. So you have to have someone who, 27 times, 3 hours a day, reports information. There is basically no way any small company can do that,” says Steffi Friedrichs.

A catastrophic catch-up game

To Kevin Stairs, the uncertainty surrounding nanomaterials is nothing new. Since joining Greenpeace – before the public was even aware of nanomaterials – he says he’s seen legislation lag behind the issue in many cases.

“We’re playing a catch-up game, but that’s not the way to do it,” he says. “Let’s get ahead of it. Let’s get the evidence. Let’s get to the point where we can say that it is unlikely to cause harm.”

Kevin Stairs, Greenpeace's EU chemicals policy officer, says nanomaterials are a "hidden attack" on consumers that can impact human health and the environment.
Kevin Stairs, Greenpeace’s EU chemicals policy officer, says nanomaterials are a “hidden attack” on consumers that can impact human health and the environment. Photo: Luc Rinaldi.

In the case of nanomaterials, Steffen Foss Hansen says the first step is to create new guidelines for testing and registering nanomaterials, which would allow authorities to control what’s in the market and create a Europe-wide database of products containing nanomaterials, like the one he’s helped pioneer in Denmark.

“In Germany, it took authorities three months to figure out that a product called NanoMagic didn’t contain nanomaterials. It was in 2006, and back then, it really gave nanotechnology a bad wipe. It’s shocking that the authorities still don’t even have the basic information about the manufacturing, uses and risks of most nanomaterials and nanoproducts,” says Steffen Foss Hansen.

Authorities should help the industry by providing the expertise needed to conduct tests on nanomaterials and shine a light on their effects, he adds.

“We have been working in this area for 10 years and we haven’t got much further,” says Steffen Foss Hansen. “It’s catastrophic.”

READ MORE: European Union struggles to legislate tiny substances

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