Monday, September 20, 2010

EU calls for nanoscale materials listing

Nanomaterials are substances that are very very small, but they have been making very big news in recent years.  Regulatory bodies in the United States, the European Union, and other jurisdictions have been trying to figure out how to, or even whether or not to, manage materials that may be the same as materials already evaluated...except for the size.

And therein lies the problem.  Nanomaterials are so small that they may have different properties than the same substance in a larger size.  The bigger version may not be so much of a toxicology problem, for example, because the particles are too big to get into the body in sufficient amounts.  But make that same material in very small particle sizes and suddenly it can get into the lungs, the bloodstream, and even pass through cell membranes.  Or maybe not.

That uncertainty has led to the recent calls by the EU President for an increase in the public's "right-to-know" about nanomaterials in products used by consumers. The proposal includes calls for a mandatory registry of nanomaterials so that regulators and the public can see where they are being used.  He also wants to see nanomaterials noted on labels so the public can have the information they need to choose whether to use or not use.  There were also calls for member states of the EU to develop national strategies.

Is all this needed?  Many argue that it is not.  Most nanomaterials are just smaller versions of chemicals or products that already undergo regulatory review.  In theory, any review should include the form in which the material is placed on the market.  And once in an article or product, the nanomaterial acts as the article or product, not as a nanomaterial.  But then others disagree.  Nanoscale materials may have very different properties than the bulk material.  Think of a big chunk of iron versus iron powder.  Now think of iron powder versus powder so fine that you can't even see it.

So the EU has made a proposal and time will tell what member states or the EU itself will do.  Likewise the United States is struggling to determine the best way to ensure that nanomaterials are as safe as their non-nano equivalents.  But then given the debate over whether TSCA has been a sufficient regulatory vehicle to ensure safety, there is no question that nanoscale materials will be a consideration in any new path forward.

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