If there are concerns about some laws, why are nanomaterials on the market?
As well as having to comply with various legal requirements, companies that manufacture and sell nano-based products usually conduct their own rigorous safety checks so they are confident that those products are safe to use.
Existing laws tend only to ban products and substances known to be unsafe. Many regulatory bodies agree that there isn’t enough evidence to show that nano-based products already on the market will harm humans or the environment.
If evidence should become available that a certain nano-product poses a danger to health, regulatory bodies have extensive powers under existing laws to withdraw it from the market straight away.
Some people argue, however, that even though existing laws impose stringent safety requirements, regulatory bodies should adopt a more precautionary approach to nanomaterials until we have more information on their likely impact.
Should the law be changed?
There have been several calls for a complete ban on nanomaterials, at least until the laws are tightened up to deal specifically with nano (see, for example, ETC Group and Greenpeace). It is generally thought, however, that this would be an excessive and unnecessary knee-jerk reaction which might stifle scientific innovation and create trade conflicts with other countries.
What’s more, without evidence to prove risk, a ban on nanomaterials would be difficult to justify, especially since some uses of nano (e.g. in medicine, food packaging, environmental protection) are thought to be very beneficial.
That is not to say, however, that nothing should be done. Many people argue that the application of existing laws to nano is problematic. One option might be to introduce a single piece of law dealing with all current uses of nano.
The difficulty with this approach though is that nanotechnologies and nanomaterials are used in such a diverse range of ways that it doesn’t make sense to regulate them all in the same way. Different products and applications need to be treated differently.
A more popular option with policy-makers, industry representatives and some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is to adapt existing laws to ensure that nanomaterials are encompassed and properly controlled.
The benefit of this approach is that not all laws need to be tweaked. Many laws already offer a high level of protection, and only certain types and applications of nanomaterials are thought to present a risk.
It has been argued that, rather than any drastic overhaul, existing laws should undergo more modest changes. (see, for example: European Environment Bureau, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution). Changes to the law would have to be initiated at EU (rather than UK) level because many areas of health and environmental protection are designed to be consistent across all Member States.
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