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Nanomaterials – angels or demons?
Why did the European Commission decide to set up an observatory for nanomaterials instead of a registry? How will this affect you as a European consumer? Are nanomaterials actually dangerous? We spoke with Otto Linher, Deputy Head of the chemicals unit at Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs at the European Commission and Jukka Malm, the Deputy Executive Director at ECHA to get some clarity.
Nanomaterials are widespread in everyday products and have been for a long time. The European Commission has asked ECHA to host an observatory to gather data and information on nanomaterials. The alternative option would have been to set up a registry that would have required industry to register nanomaterials in consumer products. The decision to go for an observatory has sparked criticism from stakeholders, arguing that the observatory will not have the information or power to protect consumers and workers against the hazards of nanomaterials.
Why an observatory?
In recent years, the Commission has investigated how the EU should deal with nanomaterials. “Due to the widespread use of nanomaterials, setting up a registry of all products containing nanomaterials would be extremely burdensome and expensive. The impact assessment estimated costs of more than EUR 5 billion in the first year and EUR 2.5 billion annually thereafter. Additionally, that information would not help the consumer or worker. Firstly, because they would not have access to the database anyway, as it would contain confidential information, and secondly because that information would not tell them whether there is a risk in using those products,” Otto Linher of the Commission explains.
|Otto Linher. |
Image: Otto Linher.
One of the aims of the observatory is to filter the available information so that it suits the audience, according to Linher. “If you tell consumers that a particular watercolour paint contains nanomaterials, what would they do with that information? Rather than registering all types of watercolours, it is more important to give an overview of where nanomaterials can be found in general and to tell people what the presence of nanomaterials actually means for them. They should take issues seriously but at the same time not worry when there is no reason to.”
Information in one place
The observatory will not result in new data, but will collect the information that is already available on nanomaterials in one place and present it in an easily understandable way. “The main challenge for ECHA will be to filter out and present the relevant information in a fair and objective way. The observatory will not be the only body communicating about nanomaterials so there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. Instead, it needs to gather, summarise and present information. For example, the observatory could play an important role in maintaining information from research projects after they have ended, so that this information is not lost,” says Mr Linher.
Both Mr Linher and Mr Malm (ECHA) emphasise that the content of the observatory needs to be useful for consumers and workers. The issue of nanomaterials is very scientific and to help the general public understand and to correctly interpret any of the content, special attention needs to be paid to the way this is communicated.
Should we be worried?
Some stakeholders have voiced their concern that an observatory will not be sufficient to protect European consumers from the potential hazards of nanomaterials. Mr Linher does not agree. “I think that the concern is based on a deeply entrenched and erroneous view that nanomaterials are few, unknown and potentially dangerous. While there are indeed issues, for example with fine dusts in working environments, there are few, if any, indications that there are issues with the vast majority of everyday life products containing nanomaterials. My key message would be rather to focus work on identifying relevant issues and potential risks than registering what is not worth registering,” Mr Linher says.
Mr Malm is keen to have a dialogue with stakeholders. “Many stakeholders and some Member States think that the observatory is not strong enough as a measure to deal with their concern. While it is true that the observatory as such does not bring new obligations and therefore cannot really fill data gaps, it can still help different audiences to understand what information we have and what is missing. We also know that the current registrations of substances do not yet cover all nanoforms that are on the market. We lack information on the safety aspects of those and I understand why that lack of information is causing concerns,” he says.
Mr Malm emphasises the need for legal clarity on how the safety of nanomaterials should be assessed under REACH. He explains that there is a common agreement in the OECD that nanomaterials need to be seen as any other substance. “This makes it difficult to discuss the risks of nanomaterials on a general level. You cannot automatically rely on the data of the bulk form. All nanomaterials have to be assessed case by case as any other substance. Some nanomaterials may be hazardous, and some may not.”
Despite the observatory not generating new data, Mr Malm thinks that it can bring added value to European citizens. “There may be more information available than many people are aware of and by presenting that information we can already increase our understanding of nanomaterials.”
Some Member States, for example Denmark and France, have created national registries for nanomaterials. Whether this data can one day be part of the EU observatory, is still too early to say. “We want to discuss with the Member States how we can best use the data they are generating. We know that there are limitations to what they can make public because the national registries are based on notifications from individual companies and the detailed information is often considered confidential. We want to see if there is at least summary level information that could be used in the EU observatory,” Mr Malm says.
What happens next?
ECHA is now preparing the first phase of the observatory which is planned to go live around summer 2017. There will be web content on what nanomaterials are, how they are used, safety issues and links to the research projects.
Both the Commission and ECHA expect the observatory to become a reliable, transparent and user friendly source of information on nanomaterials, where people with different backgrounds and needs can find information on the safety and use of nanomaterials. “It would be a success if ECHA and the observatory are accepted as a sound source of information for the general public. The observatory should contain a good overview of the market and products, as well as health and safety issues. It should also de-mystify the debate on nanomaterials, and play an active role in the nanomaterial debate itself,” Mr Linher concludes.
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