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UK Royal Commission Warns of Lethal Impact of Unregulated Nanotech Products

Posted to the IUF website 18-Nov-2008

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A new report from the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has called for urgent action to deal with the potentially lethal impact of commercial applications of nanotechnology . Products incorporating engineered nanoparticles are being rapidly introduced in the absence of adequate research and testing on the environmental impact and risks to human health, says the report. "Current testing arrangements and existing regulations are inadequate", according to Commission chair Sir John Lawton. " The report concludes that the potential risks introduced by nanomaterials can only be contained through widespread monitoring, intensive research and alterations to the existing European regulations, none of which take into account the specific characteristics of engineered nanomaerials in concrete applications. The recommendations call for review and revision of the EU's product specific, sector specific and chemicals regulations (REACH) "as a matter of urgency"

Professor Susan Owens of the University of Cambridge and a member of the Commission, recalling the delayed impact of asbestos and other lethal products, said "If we don't do anything and we leave it, then things manifest themselves in 10 to 15 years' time."

The report contrasts the rapid rate of innovation and commercialization with the total absence of "data on chronic, long-term effects on people, other organisms or the wider environment� Ignorance of these matters brings into question the level of confidence that can be placed in current regulatory arrangements." The report also highlights the incapacity of current toxicology research to deal with the flood of new products and processes, stating "The Commission is very concerned by the long lead times required for research to provide results that will be useful for legislation and regulation. We received expert opinion that lead times of �several decades� could easily be involved. As a consequence, and however good the research effort, significant uncertainties and areas of ignorance will remain.

The Royal Commission conclusions challenge the complacency of the European Commission's recent regulatory review of nanomaterials, which concluded that no nano-specific measures are required because relevant EU legislation on chemicals, occupational health and safety and the environment "in principle" applies to nanotechnology.

In response, the European Trade Union Confederation nanotechnology has called on the Commission to amend the REACH legislation to include nanomaterials manufactured or imported below the threshold of one tonne per year. "Workers all along the production chain from laboratories through to manufacturing, transport, shop shelves, cleaning, maintenance and waste management" are exposed to nanomaterials manufactured and placed on the market without true knowledge of their potential impacts on human health and the environment", states the ETUC resolution.

The Dutch national trade union center FNV on October 9 called on the Dutch Labour Minister to introduce specific preventive measures for workers exposed to nanomaterials, stating �The FNV cannot accept the existing indistinctness on the protective measures that should be taken by companies to assure sufficient protection when working with nanoparticles. The Labour Inspectorate does not have the tools needed to provide employers with corrective advices in protecting workers. This situation is unacceptable and needs to be solved immediately.� The FNV is calling for mandatory inclusion of details on presence of nanoparticles in workplace safety data sheets.

The UK Royal Commission report offers powerful support to the Principles for the Oversight of Nanotechnologies and Nanomaterials endorsed by the IUF and other trade union and civil society organizations last year. The 2007 IUF Congress called for a moratorium on the commercialization of products incorporating nanomaterials and processes in the absence of strong, comprehensive regulatory oversight at all levels, beginning with the workplace.

At a September 29 Conference in Vienna on "Nanotechhnologies - the Present State of Regulation", a representative of the Austrian Ministry of Public Health called for the application of the precautionary principle through an EU-wide moratorium on the use of nanotech in the food sector. Unions should be highlighting this position in response to the European Food Safety Agency's recent call for "consultation on its draft scientific opinion in relation to nanoscience and nanotechnologies and food and feed safety."

The summary and full reports of the Royal Commission as well as the valuable supporting studies are available here.