More precaution in the management of nanomaterials
Nanomaterials offer numerous new opportunities for innovation but they can also pose new risks. Nanomaterials are now used in many different economic sectors and increasingly also in consumer products such as cosmetics, textiles, and food packaging. The possible consequences of this use have not been sufficiently studied. There is a danger of a widening gap between the technological development and the knowledge about risks.
In its Special Report "Precautionary strategies for managing nanomaterials" published today, the German Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU) makes recommendations for a responsible and precautionary development of this new technology. The objective is to allow for innovation but also to identify and reduce risks at an early stage. The SRU holds the view that the regulation of nanomaterials is in urgent need of reform and calls for more transparency with regard to the use of nanomaterials in consumer products.
"The precautionary principle must consistently be applied to nanomaterials. This is required from the point of view of constitutional law and useful to retain trust in the new technology," says Prof Christian Calliess, the SRU's legal expert. In some areas of chemicals and product regulation, state action is only justified if there is scientific evidence of harm," says Prof Calliess. "As soon as there is a justified cause for concern there is a need to act on the basis of the precautionary principle and to weigh up the risks against the opportunities." This would, however, require numerous changes in the law.
The chemicals, product and environmental regulations are generally applicable to nanomaterials and nanoproducts. In practice, however, the specific characteristics of nanomaterials can impede the effectiveness of some legal instruments. In the registration of chemicals and the authorisation of products, for instance, nanomaterials are not always treated and therefore assessed separately from the bulk substance.
The SRU considers it important that these regulatory gaps are closed as quickly as possible. This would require a uniform definition for nanomaterials, their treatment as separate substances in chemicals risk assessments and the obligation for manufacturers to submit data sets specifically adapted to nanomaterials.
The toxicologist of the SRU, Prof Heidi Foth, emphasises that general statements about the risks of nanomaterials are inappropriate: "On current knowledge, some materials raise no concern, while others pose potential risks." Activities which in SRU's opinion pose a certain cause of concern are, in particular, the use of nanomaterials in consumer sprays, the growing sales of consumer products containing silver nanoparticles and the production and processing of carbon nanotubes, which are suspected to be carcinogenic - especially those with a high aspect ratio.
Public authorities and consumers do not always know which nanomaterials are used in which products. The SRU considers it necessary to increase transparency. This would enable authorities to respond quickly if they receive new evidence of risks to human health or the environment. Consumers should generally be given a freedom of choice. The SRU therefore recommends a register for products containing nanomaterials and an extension of existing labelling obligations.