Too little is known about the potential effects of nanoparticles said the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, a British influential body established in 1970 to advise governmental authorities on environmental issues. “There is an urgent need for more research and testing of nanomaterials,” said Sir John Lawton, the Commission’s chairman. However, the scientific advisory body concluded there are no grounds for a blanket ban or moratorium on nanomaterials, which are important in improving the performance of existing technologies or making new technologies possible.

In the Royal Commission study we looked hard for evidence of nanomaterials causing harm to human health or to the environment, and found no such evidence,” explained Sir Lawton. “However, it is very early in the development of this technology, and the amount of testing has been relatively limited,” he added.

Development beyond current testing capacities

In its latest study on novel materials published on November 12, 2008, the Royal Commission focussed on nanomaterials as an exemplar of a rapidly expanding new technology. “While the Commission found no evidence of harm to health or the environment from nanomaterials, it believes that the pace at which such new nanomaterials are being developed and marketed is beyond the capacity of existing testing and regulatory arrangements to control the potential environmental impacts adequately,” the Commission concluded.

According to the Commission, industry’s rate of innovation in this sector far outstrips governmental capacity to respond to the risks. Action taken so far is insufficient to address the uncertainties around the environmental and human health impacts of nanomaterials. Extending the European Union’s regulatory regime for chemicals (REACH) to cover nanoparticles may help improving the situation. “This must be taken forward as a matter of urgency,” the Commission added.

Inadequate regulations

In evaluating potential risks, the Royal Commission concluded that it is not the size of nanomaterials per se that is important, but their functionality, what they do and how they behave, that needs to be evaluated.

The Commission also expressed concerns that more sophisticated later generation nanoproducts will raise issues which cannot be dealt with by treating them as chemicals or mixtures of chemicals, and making current testing arrangements and regulations inadequate.

More transparency needed

Earlier this month, Consumers Union, a nonprofit US action group and publisher of Consumer Reports, released product tests showing that 4 out of 5 sunscreens that company representatives stated did not contain nano-size particles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide actually did contain them. Previous tests commissioned by Consumer Reports in 2007, already found that 8 out of 8 sunscreens that included zinc oxide or titanium dioxide contained nanoparticles. Only one disclosed this fact on the label; the others said nothing about whether they contained the particles

"The widespread use of nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide in sunscreen is involving consumers in a vast experiment as to the safety of these products," said Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Consumers Union.

Another report, Small Wonder? Nanotechnology and Cosmetics, released by UK’s Which? Magazine on November 5, 2008, similarly uncovered the significant use of nanomaterials in sunscreens. Moreover, the magazine criticized the industry’s lack of transparency on this issue. “So few companies came forward to be involved in our report,” regretted Sue Davies, Chief Policy Adviser at Which?. “The cosmetics industry needs to stop burying its head in the sand and come clean about how it is using nanotechnology,” she added.

Professor Ann Dowling, Chair of the Royal Society working group on nanotechnologies, said the UK’s national academy of science was “disappointed at continuing lack of transparency in this area”. The Royal Societyhas been calling, for the last four years, for companies to make public the safety testing methods they have been using on their nanoproducts,” Professor Dowling added.

Commenting on Which? Magazine’s report, CTPA, UK’s association of manufacturers of cosmetic, toiletry and perfumery products, denied any lack of transparency from the industry. “The European Commission’s independent scientific advisors have specifically approved the use of titanium dioxide in cosmetics to protect from the harmful effects of UV light. Those same advisors have subsequently asked for more information relating to the use of nano-sized titanium dioxide and the cosmetics industry is in the process of providing this”.

Careful scrutiny to be required in France

In France, where lawmakers are discussing a bill [1] aiming at upgrading the nation’s environmental policy, nanotechnologies may also come under careful scrutiny.

The bill (article 37), calls for the organisation of a national debate on nanomaterials to be organised before March 31, 2009 and provides a two-year delay to public authorities to set-up a compulsory declaration scheme of all nanomaterials produced or imported into France. The bill also urges the government to provide a new methodology for assessing the risks and benefits links to nanoparticles.

The bill was voted in first reading by the National Assembly at the end of October and must now be discussed by the Senate.