Corporations make the money, government ducks the issue and the public takes the risks.
At the end of March the UK government again ducked the issue of nanotechnology regulation. Instead of announcing a moratorium on the first generation of nanotech products, or even their formal regulation, DEFRA (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) have decided to leave it up to the corporations and launched a consultation on a 'voluntary reporting scheme for engineered nanoscale materials'.
The warning signs about the first generation of nanotech products, those based on manufactured nanoparticles, have been there for a while. Scientists working on the toxic effects of very small (ultra fine) particles contained in car exhaust fumes, incinerator emissions and in workplace dust (for example asbestos) have been indicating for a number of years the potential for manufactured nanoparticles to behave in a similar way.
'There is evidence that UFPs [Ultra Fine Particles or nano-particles] can gain entry to the body by a number of routes, including inhalation, ingestion and across the skin. There is considerable evidence that UFPs are toxic and therefore potentially hazardous. The basis of this toxicity is not fully established but a prime candidate for consideration is the increased reactivity associated with very small size.' Dr C.V. Howard(1)
The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineers (RS/RAeng) 2004 report on the opportunities and uncertainties posed by nanotechnology was a wakeup call to regulators around the world(2). Its significance lay not just in what it said but also in who was saying it. Here was the scientific establishment, not just the usual environmentalist suspects, saying 'Hang on, I think we may have a problem here'. Rather than giving a clean bill of health for the emergent technology, the report raised concerns about the potential toxicity of manufactured nano-particles and the lack of adequate regulation in place to deal with them. The report stopped short of calling for a moratorium on the use of manufactured nano-particles on the understanding that precautionary regulation would soon be introduced. Amongst other proposals the report also called for the labeling of products containing manufactured nanoparticles.
Since the report’s publication the UK government has had a clear choice - to take these concerns seriously and to err on the side of caution and regulation; or to carry on with business as usual? The lack of regulatory action since the report’s publication makes the government's decision clear. Thus far it has failed to act substantively on the report’s findings. Every nanotech policy statement it has made has watered down the RS/RAeng recommendations.
Under the proposed voluntary notification scheme the nanotech industry will be invited to volunteer information about engineered nanoscale materials (manufactured nanoparticles) that they make, use or import, to a database maintained by DEFRA. The government’s rationale for the scheme seems to be that although it acknowledges that there are potential toxicity problems with manufactured nanoparticles, it currently doesn’t know enough about their behaviour to introduce regulation, and therefore hopes that the scheme will generate enough information for them to be able to introduce 'appropriate controls' at some point in the future.
This scheme confirms that the government is unwilling to compel the nanotech industry to do anything that might get in the way of expanding their business. It is unclear whether the government has been nobbled by the nanotech industry or if its stance and the proposed scheme merely reflect an ingrained, ideologically-inspired free-market aversion to imposing new regulation. It is interesting to note that the proposed scheme was drawn up in consultation with nanotech companies, trade associations and the Micro and Nanotechnologies Network. The scheme seems to be driven by a desire to be seen to be doing something, whilst in reality doing very little, least of all making any demands of the nanotech industry.
Specific problems with the scheme are:
Integrity of the dataset: A fundamental flaw with the notification scheme, even as just a research tool for developing regulation, is that it is voluntary. Companies can choose whether or not to submit details of their nanoparticle products and which data to submit. Although the scheme carries with it a wish-list of details to be recorded on the database, such as a description of the nano-material and its properties, details of its intended use, information on likely routes of exposure to humans and the environment, and information on toxicity and behaviour in the environment, there is no element of compulsion to ensure that companies will submit all or any of the data asked for. The scheme seems to demonstrate a regulatory blindness to the idea that corporations might not tell 'the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth' all of the time. At best any results of the scheme are likely to be partial. At worst they could be misleading. The potential exists for companies to submit only good data showing no problems with their products - or to submit no data at all - with no potential for government redress. One only has to look at the chemical and pharmaceutical industries' far from spotless history of accountability and responsibility to conclude that the nano industry may not be 100% forthcoming all of the time.
Secret database: Short of introducing a compulsory labelling scheme for all nanoparticle products, a notification scheme, compulsory or not, could at least theoretically provide the public with a means of finding out where, by whom and in what nanoparticles are being used. That would be the case if the database was to be in the public domain. Unfortunately, in order to protect commercial confidentiality, the database will be for internal government use only. Members of the public will have to make freedom of information requests to find out anything of what the database contains.
Lack of urgency: This voluntary reporting might have been an excusable response if it was a very short-term stop gap before introducing either a mandatory notification scheme or regulatory control. Coming as it does almost two years after the publication of the RS/RAeng report and probably at least two years before the scheme will have any regulatory outcomes, it really is too little, to slow, too late.
Much as regulators might wish that we were still at nano-year zero, with nanotechnology confined (safely?) to laboratories and with lots of time to work out the safety and ethical issues surrounding it, the reality is different. The public and the environment are already at nano-ground zero and are being exposed to dozens of unregulated nanotech products. Nanotechnology is corporate owned and economically driven. As with many new technologies before, from asbestos to GM crops, rather than asking safety questions first and marketing products later, the first generation of nanotech products, mostly those based on manufactured nano-particles, is already with us. Recent work by Corporate Watch(3) and others suggests that there are over 100 products on the market in the UK containing manufactured nanoparticles. These products include sunscreens, cosmetics, bandages, clothing, sports equipment, cars and electronic equipment. In some product areas, such as sunscreens, the use of manufactured nanoparticles is so standard that you would be hard pressed to find nano-free alternatives. And its not going to stop there: a quick look at products available elsewhere in the world, or currently under development, shows that the number of nanoparticle products and the range of industry areas in which nanoparticles are used is only going to grow. That set against a complacent regulatory backdrop, with no nano specific regulation anywhere in the world, is a frightening prospect.
Anyone wanting to take part in DEFRA’s consultation on the voluntary reporting scheme can download information on the consultation from www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/nanotech-vrs/index.htm and has until 23rd June to submit their response.
(1) C.V. Howard 2003 Appendix to ETC Group occasional paper “No Small Matter II: The Case for a Global Moratorium Size Matters!” available online at
(2) See Corporate Watch Newsletter issue 20 page 7 available online at http://archive.corporatewatch.org/newsletter/issue20/newsletter20.pdf
(3) Corporate Watch report on nanoparticle products out summer 2006 also see Woodrow Wilson Institute database of nanotech products on the market available online at www.nanotechproject.org/index.php?id=44