Nanotechnology – A Threat to Our Health and the Environment?

Vito Buonsante
Health and Environment Lawyer at ClientEarth

The smallest car in the world is one billionth of a metre. 60,000 times smaller than the thickness of a hair. And is self-propelled. Instead of carrying people or freight, it could transport molecules and atoms and be used to reconstruct damaged cells.

Nanoparticles can perform tasks that were previously never thought possible.

In recent years, nanomaterials have been increasingly used in consumer products, from sunscreens to food containers, heralded for making disinfectants that bit more effective or helping to disinfect your socks and underwear. They have even been used to clean up water contaminated with heavy metals.

But the shrinking of particles to a nanoscale can change their properties. As with many emerging technologies, we still have little understanding of the impacts these tiny particles have on our health and the environment. More and more studies are warning of the potential hazardous properties of nanoparticles. For example, nanosilver is known to wash through the sewage system into the water course and kill beneficial bacteria, which in turn disrupts ecosystems. Günter Oberdörster, a prominent expert on nanomaterials and author of the Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) paper of the year in 2008, recently advised against any use of products containing nanomaterials in sprays, for cleaning surfaces or in self-cleaning materials.

Only this year did the European Union finally agree on a definition of nanomaterials. Although far from perfect, the definition sets the scene for future regulatory assessments on the health and environmental hazards of nanomaterials.

Under the European chemicals legislation, REACH (the regulation on the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals), only three substances have been registered that are clearly specified as nanomaterials. Due to the small number of nanomaterial registrations under REACH, the registration dossiers do not clearly identify the specific hazards and risks of these substances.

There have been a few attempts in Europeto create a register of the nanomaterials on the market and in consumer products, but all have been voluntary and lacked teeth. Belgium andFrance however, while waiting for the European Commission to propose regulatory actions on nanomaterials, have created a mandatory register to collect information about all nanomaterials on the market, even those used in small quantities.

The technology is still in its infancy. To fully understand the hazards and risks of nanomaterials, it would be necessary to perform animal studies. Under REACH, which aims to minimise testing on animals and requires approval by the European Chemicals Agency, only one proposal for an animal study on a nanomaterial has been submitted. Without an understanding of the potential hazardous impacts of nanoparticles in consumer products, nano-producing companies could be putting our health and the environment at risk.  

ClientEarth, alongside other European environment and health NGOs and consumer organisations, is calling for the responsible use of nanomaterials. We need to see prompt measures to ensure that the nanomaterials placed on the market are safe, and that the safe use of these substances is documented. This can be done through a thorough implementation of the REACH regulation and the adaptation of the information requirements under REACH to address the knowledge gaps on nano.

As the use of nanomaterials continues to expand, to ensure safe use it will be necessary to take account of all fields of chemical use that are not fully addressed under REACH. This would include pesticides, biocides, cosmetics, food and food-contact materials legislation, as well as nanomaterials used in consumer products and their impact on production workers. To add to this, monitoring programs for soil and water need to be implemented in order to ensure that measures to control the risk of nanomaterials are established. To ensure the safe use of nanomaterials, we need a holistic approach to their regulation. The benefits of nanotechnologies must be weighed against the need to prevent any harmful impacts to our health and the environment.

Vito Buonsante is the Health and Environment Lawyer at ClientEarth, a European environmental nonprofit organization. He leads the work on toxics and in particular on the implementation of REACH. Find out more about ClientEarth’s work on toxic chemicals.

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