Coalition releases proposed nanotech rules

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nanotechnology

An international coalition of consumer, environmental and labour
groups yesterday released a list of proposals to regulate the use
of nanotechnology, providing processors with an insight of what
such laws may look like.

The coalition yesterday issued what the member groups describe as an urgent call for strong nanotechnology oversight, along with a 15-page document setting out proposed principles to guide regulators in oversight of nanotechnologies and nanomaterials. Although it has been touted as the next revolution in many industries, including food manufacturing and packaging, public concerns have been raised over the potential health or environmental hazards nanotechnology may pose. While industry has been forging ahead in the use of the technology, consumer groups and regulators have been examining how to regulate its use, posing the prospect that food processors may soon find themselves limited in how they develop new products. In the past scientists have been urging companies developing nano products to be more transparent and to cater to consumer concerns, pointing to the backlash against genetically modified foods in Europe as an example of how not to go about introducing products into a market. The manufacture of products using nanotechnology - the science of manipulating matter at the level of atoms and molecules in order to alter properties - has exploded in recent years. According to the coalition, which operates under the umbrella group International Center for Technology Assessment, hundreds of consumer products incorporating nanomaterials are now on the market, including cosmetics, sunscreens, sporting goods, clothing, electronics, baby and infant products, and food and food packaging. "But evidence indicates that current nanomaterials may pose significant health, safety, and environmental hazards,"​ the group stated. "In addition, the profound social, economic, and ethical challenges posed by nano-scale technologies have yet to be addressed."​ Ron Oswald, general secretary of international trade union IUF, said regulation and oversight was needed to defend against the massive intrusion of nano-products into the global food chain. He claimed that hundreds of commercially available products - from pesticides to additives to packaging materials incorporating nanotech - are already on the market or just a step away. "Workers, consumers, and the environment must be adequately protected against the multiple risks this development poses to the global food system and the women and men who produce the food we all depend on,"​ he said. The petition claims to document scientific evidence of nanomaterial risks stemming from their unpredictable toxicity and seemingly unlimited mobility. It cites a 2004 study showed rapid brain damage in fish exposed to a type of manufactured nanoparticle used in some cosmetics. Other studies suggest that nanoparticles can trigger unpredictable inflammatory and immune responses, and have found that nanoparticles can penetrate cells and move within the body freely, even crossing the blood-brain barrier, they claim. The coalition includes consumer, public health, environmental, labour, and civil society organisations spanning six continents. They are especially disturbed by a recent decision by the Food and Drug Administration in the US that the development of nanotechnology does not need any special oversight, or new legislation. Materials engineered at the nano-scale can exhibit fundamentally different properties-including toxicity-with unknown effects, said George Kimbrell of the International Center for Technology Assessment. "Since there is currently no government oversight and no labeling requirements for nano-products anywhere in the world, no one knows when they are exposed to potential nanotech risks and no one is monitoring for potential health or environmental harm,"​ he said. The industrial boom is creating a growing nano-workforce which is predicted to reach two million globally by 2015, said Bill Kojola of the AFL-CIO union. "Even though potential health hazards stemming from exposure have been clearly identified, there are no mandatory workplace measures that require exposures to be assessed, workers to be trained, or control measures to be implemented,"​ he said. "This technology should not be rushed to market until these failings are corrected and workers assured of their safety."​ The coalition's declaration outlines eight fundamental principles they believe are necessary for oversight and assessment of the emerging field of nanotechnology. The call on governments to establish what is known in industry as the "precautionary principle" when assessing nanotechnology engineered products. Under such a policy product manufacturers and distributors must bear the burden of proof to demonstrate the safety of their products. If no independent health and safety data review exists then regulators would not approve the product for market release. The coalition also calls for mandatory nano-specific regulations, special protection for workers exposed to nanomaterials that have not been proven safe, full lifecycle analysis of environmental impacts prior to commercialisation, special labelling and publicly available safety data, public participation, and the inclusion of ethical and social impact assessments. Lastly the coalition called on establishing manufacturer liability for nano products that turn out to be unsafe. Beth Burrows of the Edmonds Institute, a public interest organisation, said all governmental bodies, policymakers, industries, organisations need to incorporate the principles. "Given our past mistakes with 'wonder technologies' like pesticides, asbestos, and ozone depleting chemicals, the rapid commercialisation of nanomaterials without full testing or oversight is shocking,"​ said Burrows. "It is no surprise that the public of the 21st century is demanding more accountability."

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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