The UK’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) recently published its report Novel materials in the environment: the case of nanotechnology. The report, which focuses on nanomaterials, concludes that there is an urgent need for more testing, extending existing governance arrangements and creating new arrangements for the control of these materials. The report defines a nanomaterial as a material that is between 1 and 100nm in at least one dimension.  

Despite finding no evidence of harmful effects on human health or the environment, the RCEP report stated that there was evidence of potential risk from some nanomaterials, including nanosilver and carbon nanotubes. Moreover, the report stated that the rapid rate at which these materials are being developed and marketed is beyond the capacity of the existing testing and regulatory regime.  

The RCEP also indicates that it is particularly concerned that the nanoform of a material may have significantly different properties from those of its normal form, so that tests indicating the health and environmental safety of a product may not be indicative of its safety in nanoform and that there is virtually no data on the chronic, long-term effects of nanomaterials on people or the environment. The report also suggests that, with respect to nanomaterials incorporated into products already on the market, very little thought has been given to the environmental effects of nanomaterials once they become detached from products during use or final disposal.  

On balance, the RCEP concludes that there are no grounds for a blanket ban or moratorium on nanomaterials, but recommends that:  

  • as a matter of urgency, the EU REACH chemical regulatory regime and product and sector specific regulations should be revised and extended to facilitate their effective application to nanomaterials. Strict chemical equivalence with existing bulk products should not preclude separate risk assessments for nanoparticles, given the potential for differing functionality. Special attention should also be given to the existing REACH minimum tonnage thresholds and their applicability to nanoparticles, with a precautionary approach being adopted when determining new, lower thresholds for nanomaterials;
  • a directed research programme should be developed to evaluate the potential risks associated with nanomaterials. Research should focus on functionality (what a material does and how it behaves) rather than particle size or how a material is made;
  •  a robust programme of environmental monitoring is required, using new techniques to detect manufactured nanoparticles in living organisms and the environment;
  • an early warning system should be developed. All importers or manufacturers of nanomaterials or products containing them that are not captured by REACH would be required to complete a standard form ‘checklist’. The checklist would be designed to elaborate the special properties of the nanomaterials, explain why they have been produced or incorporated into the product and consider pathways of human and environmental exposure throughout the product’s lifecycle. Companies would have a duty to report at the earliest opportunity any reasonable suspicion that a material poses a risk to people or the environment. Where a manufacturer or importer completed the checklist to the best of their abilities they would gain protection against legal action if the material subsequently proved to be harmful in some way; and
  • despite powerful arguments that consumers should be informed if products contain nanomaterials, the RCEP makes no recommendation for product labelling for nanomaterials.