RSC - Advancing the Chemical Sciences


Chemistry World

 

Seeing the environmental wood for the nanotech trees


27 June 2007

Ned Stafford/Hamburg, Germany

The environmental group Bund, the German branch of Friends of the Earth, has issued a 24-page report on potential health and environmental risks of nanotechnology in the hope of rallying international support for more regulatory oversight. But some environmentalists say campaigning efforts should be directed elsewhere.

Patricia Cameron, chemicals policy and nanotechnology expert at Bund in Berlin, says that most environmental lobby groups are aware of the potential risks of nanotechnology, but generally have not campaigned intensively for new regulations.

Insufficient testing

'It is high time the health and environmental safety issues [of nanotechnology] are dealt with before the situation becomes irreversible,' Cameron told Chemistry World. 'Nanotechnology is already used widely and it hasn't been tested for environmental and health concerns. There are not even any test systems established yet.'

In addition to trying to rally environmentalists and other non-governmental groups, Bund hopes to educate German politicians on the issue so they can raise the issue at the European level in Brussels. The paper, which Bund also issued in English for an international audience, listed 10 core recommendations for nanotechnology safety. These include the strict application of the precautionary principle in the use of nanotechnologies, and the classification and treatment of 'nanochemicals' as new substances covered by chemical legislation.

Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, which has also issued reports on nanotechnology, says he is in general agreement with Bund's concern about lack of regulatory oversight for nanotechnology.

'The EU should absolutely be doing more,' Parr told Chemistry World. 'They should immediately introduce amendments to Reach [Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals] to classify nanoscale material as new substances.'

Focus on global issues

But Parr says he is not sure that environmental groups, which have limited funds and staffing, should focus more on nanotechnology at the expense of other global issues.

"None of the people in environmental groups are sitting around twiddling their thumbs"
- Doug Parr, Greenpeace

'We [Greenpeace] are putting most of our effort into climate change as the biggest global threat,' he said. 'I don't disagree with [Bund], but I don't agree either. It's hard to make a judgment on how to allocate time. I can say that none of the people in environmental groups are sitting around twiddling their thumbs.'

Antonia Mochan, spokeswoman for science and research at the European Commission, said commissioners do see the need for future changes to nanotech regulations, but added that the current legislation is sufficient. 

'Our view is that, overall, the existing regulatory framework gives a good coverage as far as nanotechnology has been developed today,' she said.

No one-size-fits-all

Steffen Foss Hansen, a PhD student at the Institute Environment & Resources at the Technical University of Denmark, recently co-authored a paper on the EU's Management of risks related to nanomaterials  published in the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. While conceding that development of a proper nanotechnology oversight framework will be a 'daunting task,' he agreed with Cameron and Parr that the EU needs to move more quickly.

But some of the outright bans suggested by Bund would result in 'lost benefits and opportunities,' said Hansen. 'There is no one-size-fits-all in regard to regulating nanomaterials,' he said. 'I would hope that we are smarter than that, and that we can design a regulation system, or adapt existing regulation, that is truly sustainable and that allows us to reap the benefits of nanotechnologies and avoid the risks.'