15 July 2008 17:24 [Source: ICIS news]
By Nigel Davis
LONDON (ICIS news)--The nanotechnology debate in the EU is not simply about health and safety but ultimately public acceptance of the science of the very small.
Definitions of nanotechnology and particularly of nanotech products have always been blurred but chemical makers are rapidly applying emerging nano-science. And as more products, such as suncreens and sporting goods, based on nano-sized particles emerge so product and process safety quite rightly is questioned.
The nanoworld is different but not necessarily scary, although consumers and process workers cannot be expected to accept that assertion. As product development increases, and research pushes back the boundaries of the science, so nanotech safety needs to be addressed. Proper controls have to be applied to new products entering the market.
The European Commission last month admitted that more research and international cooperation was needed to get to grips with developing nano capability.
The fear, clearly, is that nanotechnology could go the way of so-called “green” biotechnology and product development be halted by consumer scares.
It has opened up public discussion on the regulatory framework that applies to the health, safety and environmental aspects of nanotechnology.
“In order to properly develop, modify or in particular to implement legislation, the scientific knowledge base needs to be improved,” the EC admits. Its latest discussion paper, or ‘Communication’, on nanotechnology focuses on “legislation, implementation and bridging the knowledge gap”.
Currently the most controversial aspect of the Commission’s recommended approach as far as chemicals are concerned is in the proposed use of Reach, the EU’s registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals programme to encompass nanotech intermediates and products.
It says that when an existing chemical substance, already placed on the market in bulk form, is introduced as a nanomaterial additional registration and other data will be required.
“To determine specific hazards associated with nanomaterials, current test guidelines may need to be modified,” it adds.
“Until specific test guidelines for nanomaterials exist, testing will have to be carried out according to already existing guidelines.”
That statement in itself illustrates the fact that a gap exists between nanotech science and legislation even as it is being implemented. New nanotech products will fall under other chemicals control legislation but the laws themselves may not be up to the job.
The European Trade Union Convention (ETUC) in June highlighted the issues when it said that workers from the lab, through manufacturing and transport, to retail outlets, cleaning, maintenance and waste management were potentially being exposed to nanomaterials.
“Products are being made today and placed on the market without knowing whether nanomaterials are released from them and what their potential impacts on human health and the environment may be,” an ETUC resolution said.
The level of concern about “new and usual dangers” is being raised. An earlier research study, published in Nature nanotechnology in May, had raised concerns over the long, thin carbon nanotubes – as opposed to those that are short or the curly. Exposure to this material could be as bad as exposure to long, thin asbestos fibres, the study suggested.
Nanotechnologies have been described as the “engine of the next industrial revolution”, although listening to practitioners it seems that the focus of the science has moved on and the promise re-appraised.
One of the nanopioneers, Professor Jim Gimzewski of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, said in
Gimzewski and others are helping chemical and personal care firms develop new and exciting products but the key part of his research work has extended into the medical field and the detection of soft cancer cells using Atomic Force Microscopy.
Nanotechnology may provide the tools to work wonders; it may also sow the seeds of great harm. The producers and purveyors of nanomaterials have to better understand what they are dealing with.
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