Nanotechnology and international law

How companies should behave in this phase that still does not see regulations?

Numerous European bodies are reviewing current legislation to determine whether nanomaterials and nanotechnologies require specific regulation. While companies working with nanotechnologies wait for the outcome of this process, what measures are they taking, if any, to ensure the safety of their workers and of their products? How do they cope with this “knowledge gap”?
To answer these questions, Nanochannels project partner TiConUno, in cooperation with the web TV Triwù, organized a roundtable event in Milan on April 2nd among relevant stakeholders. The roundtable took place at the Politecnico di Milano. Nanotech Company CEOs, researchers,social scientists and lawyers sat together to share and discuss for more than an hour regulatory issues related to nanotechnology.
As a starting point, participants agreed that regulators have a rather complex task to accomplish, primarily because nanotechnology is a broad “concept” that embraces a very large number of materials and applications. Even defining what a nanomaterial is has proved to be a challenge (and still is). Elena Angeli (Nanomed) highlighted that when dealing with nanotechnology, one must recognize that there will never be a one-fix solution: there must be an application-based approach. As a matter of fact, nanomedicine products already have to comply with a very strict regulatory framework, Paolo Gasco (Nanovecor) noted. Companies working in nanomedicine already know the regulation they need to comply with, and consumers can be assured that this process is very lengthy and strict. On the other hand, Enrico Sabbioni added, there are many consumer products containing nanomaterials, like nanosilver, for which a specific regulation is not in place yet: right now there are only general regulations for chemicals (in Europe REACH) or for specific end products (like cosmetics). “Although nanomaterials are not specifically covered yet in those regulations, we are working on it” said Alessia Muratorio (expert in labour law, CIGA): some changes to current regulation have already been made, she added, for instance cosmetics will need to include nanomaterials in their ingredient list from July 2013.
Participant felt that the solution is not to ban these products (“no data, no market!” many NGOs call for), or stop nanotechnology research, rather to systematically study the safety of nanomaterials, and to ensure a communication flow between all stakeholders (industry, research, policy makers). Some very hard lessons from the past have been learned in Italy in particular the “asbestos case” is a lesson for industries working with innovative materials. Industries take safety very seriously nowadays since one mistake could mean the end for a company.
“Same applies to researchers, added Dario Narducci (material scientist), who are, first of all, citizens and have great respect for their own safety, and work to improve people quality of life. He also noted that most researchers working in chemistry and biochemistry were dealing with “nanomaterials” decades ago, and a lot of material science (colloids, surface engineering etc.) is basically nanoscience. The difference now is that we have the tools to see and describe with great details these materials. In terms of safety, Dario Narducci argued, this can only make the use of nanomaterials safer: in the past they were used without full characterization, now we can have a lot of information regarding their properties, we can study their toxicity in great detail, and select the nanomaterials that are safer.
Participants repeatedly notated that the issue of safety (and exposure) depends on the type of product: a nano-component embedded within a device does not pose the same risk compared to a washing machine releasing silver nanoparticles during its operation. The risk for the consumer and for the environment is totally different.The issue of safety seems most relevant for workers dealing with nanomaterials: this is where regulation is much needed, to make sure occupational conditions meet the safety requirements. However, some pointed out, nanomaterials are produced unintentionally in many anthropogenic activities: in many industrial processes, “fine particulate” is produced, some of which in nanoscale form. Some workers might be exposed to nanomaterials already, even if not working directly with them. While waiting for regulation, industries should consider adopting “soft regulatory measures”, Alessia Muratorio (CIGA) suggested. There are some voluntary regulatory schemes that can be implemented to maximise the safety of workers, researchers and consumers exposed to nanomaterials. Enrico Sabbioni (ECSIN) added that there is also an urgent need to establish a dialogue and cooperation between researchers dealing with nanotechnology, and industry, since often researchers are not well informed on what type of nanomaterialsare used within commercial products.
In conclusion, Federico Pedrocchi asked participants what regulatory framework they would welcome most, for instance an authority that certifies the safety of their products. Most argued that such an authority is not a realistic solution; better would be a series of services to the industries where they can have their products tested.

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