Opinion: Not such a small matter after all - Nanotechnology and the European Parliament


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By this time next year, the European Unions first provision on nano-Iabelling will be in force. From 11 July 2013, the new Regulation on cosmetic products1 will replace the old Cosmetics Directive,2 bringing with it the requirement that cosmetic products containing nanomaterials are labelled 'nano' before being placed on the EU market.

Nanotechnology is an umbrella term used to describe the manipulation of matter at a tiny scale (the nano scale), resulting in new materials (nanomaterials), products and devices that demonstrate new and unusual behaviour.3 Nanomaterials can be naturally occurring: for example, volcanic emissions often contain nanoscale particles, and viruses can be nano-sized. However, recent advances in technology have allowed for the design and production of increasingly complex materials for commercial purposes.

The benefits of nanotechnology are beginning to be realised across a range of sectors, such as pharmaceutical, medical, energy, agricultural, electronics and construction. For consumers it means advanced and better-performing products. The cosmetics industry has long used titanium dioxide in sunscreens to absorb UV rays, for example. Now many cosmetics companies are using titanium dioxide nanoparticles because they offer more effective UV filters and appear clear on the skin, not white.

There is no doubt that the potential benefits of nanomaterials are and will continue to be significant. There are increasing concerns, however, that the characteristics that make them commercially attractive will also lead to new risks to human health and the environment. Compounding this, very little information is currently available on how these risks can be identified, assessed and controlled. Whilst there is some evidence to indicate plausible risks of harm, it is too soon to predict long-term effects.

Persistent uncertainties together with the increasing market availability of nano-products has put nanotechnology towards the top of the EU policy agenda. Initially, the policy was to regulate applications of nanotechnology using existing legislation. Although this continues to be the dominant approach, EU policymakers are under increasing pressure to take steps legislatively to distinguish between nano and non-nano products. The EU has responded by imposing additional market entry requirements on certain types of product containing nanomaterials. For the most part, these requirements involve some form of product labelling. The recast Regulation on cosmetics states that 'All ingredients present in the form of nanomaterials shall be clearly indicated in the list of ingredients. The names of such ingredients shall be followed by the word 'nano' in brackets'.4 The requirement is replicated in a new Regulation on the provision of food information to consumers,5 and the new Regulation on biocidal products.6

These developments are interesting for several reasons. At a general level they raise questions about the implications of deploying additional legislative measures to distinguish between nano and non-nano goods. Recently introduced requirements for cosmetics, foods and biocidal products raise further questions about the influence and ideology of labelling in an environment of considerable uncertainty. Product labelling has long been used in the EU to promote free and informed consumer choice, but if labelling is the only legislative instrument adopted in relation to nanomaterial ingredients ('contains nano'), its capacity to promote informed choice may be limited. Without anything additional, such as co-ordinated programmes of stakeholder engagement and opportunities for frank discussion about uncertainties and ambiguities, there may be little to be gained from the four letter word.

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