The body has called on the European Commission to use its regulatory muscle to force industry players across a raft of sectors – including food, packaging, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals – to disclose which of its products are made up of nanomaterials.
While research into their applications is advancing speedily, “health and safety precautions are lagging far behind”, cautions the group.
“Better comprehensive data is urgently needed to improve knowledge of what is on the market, who is exposed and what should be regulated,” said ETUI researcher Aida Maria Ponce del Castillo.
The policy paper urges the Commission to impose harmonisation of various national schemes currently underdevelopment in the economic bloc. This would boost human and environmental health, and ensure proper risk management of the technology.
The effectiveness of voluntary schemes is dismissed by the group as actually impeding proper regulation.
Nanotechnology refers to controlling matter at an atomic or molecular scale measured in nanometres, or millionths of millimetres. The use of engineered nanomaterials is spreading because they have enhanced physiochemical properties – such as high surface area, reactivity and electrical conductivity – compared to macroscopic version of the same substances.
The group said there is keen societal concern because of a lack of information, citing anxiety from production workers as one example, who have no idea if they handle nanomaterials, in what quantities and whether or not they pose a danger.
Ponce del Castillo added: “The debate on the regulatory framework for nanotechnologies has been rolling for nigh-on a decade; it is on the political agenda because stakeholder discussions with the regulatory bodies on the supply of information on nanomaterials are basically deadlocked.”
The ETUI questions whether the current regulatory framework is appropriate for nanomaterials. It highlights that while most member states favour some form of traceability system, each country is developing its own approach.
The body hailed efforts made by Belgium last year when it held the EU presidency to push the notion of a region-wide nano-register. In September 2010, it held a high-level event to discuss a possible regulatory framework for traceability of the materials and it is working with France, Germany and the Netherlands to take proposals forward.
France, however, has become the first country to introduce mandatory nano-reporting. Article 523-1 of the Grenelle ii law means firms must report all substances in nano form present in their products. Failure to comply will result in a fine.
In Italy, the Ministry of Health is looking to develop a legal instrument for collating information of risk assessment and exposure to nanomaterials. The Government is lobbying for a joint project with the Commission.
Other projects include one in the Netherlands where 15 per cent of a €125m government subsidy on nano research has been set aside to explore risk assessment of the technology. In the UK, the Food Standards Agency has set up a nanotech working group with industry and consumer groups to discuss the issue of a register.
Barrier to regulation
The ETUI dismisses voluntary measures as a long term answer to the problem. While they serve as a testing ground, in the end the act as a barrier to proper regulation as they “have too little take up among firms, lack control and tend not to disclose negative information”.
A mandatory register would increase consumer confidence and improve proper use of nanomaterials, said the body.
ETUI concludes: “For Europe, responsible nanotechnology innovation involves putting enforcement in place.”