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The laws on nano in the environment

There are a number of potential uses of nano in the environment and agriculture. Two good examples are uses in pesticides and fertilisers. There are various laws which seek to ensure that pesticides and fertilisers do not adversely affect human, animal or plant health or the environment.

Here is a brief overview of some of the main laws in this area. Although none of these laws mention nanomaterials, they are in principle general enough to cover both conventional and nano-based pesticide and fertiliser products.

Agricultural applications

Nano in pesticides

There are strict laws on pesticides that are designed to ensure a high level of protection for human health and the environment.

‘Pesticide’ is a general term for both biocides and plant protection products. Here, we mean products used on plants to protect them from pests such as weeds, fungi, insects and diseases.

Pesticide products, and the active substances (usually chemicals) of which they consist, cannot be marketed or used in the EU unless they have been evaluated for their safety and authorised.

There is a two tier approach. A company wishing to place a new pesticide product on the market in the UK, for instance, will have to submit a wide range of scientific data to the Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD) of the Health & Safety Executive containing general information on the product as well as evidence that it is safe and effective to use.

The product will be subject to detailed evaluation and risk assessment by scientific experts from within CRD and, following this expert advice, Ministers will decide whether or not to grant approval. The active substance of that product will already have been evaluated for its safety to people, animals, water and the environment by the European Commission.

Any active substance which fails this preliminary test does not appear on the EU’s positive list of substances permitted in pesticide products and so cannot appear in any pesticide product marketed in any of the Member States.

Nano in fertilisers

Different pieces of legislation apply depending on whether a fertiliser is intended for sale in the UK only, or for sale anywhere in the EU. These laws, however, contain quite similar requirements. The most basic requirement is that fertilisers cannot be marketed if, under normal conditions of use, they adversely affect human, animal, or plant health, or the environment. They must be safe to use.

Manufacturers must also ensure that fertilisers are properly labelled with information, such as nutrient content and instructions for use, and are sold in appropriate packaging. For fertilisers sold not just in the UK but elsewhere in the EU, manufacturers must keep records to ensure that fertilisers put on the market are easily traced.

If there is concern that a specific fertiliser poses a risk to health or the environment, it can be withdrawn from the market and temporarily prohibited until further risk assessments have been conducted and a decision made about its safety.

Working with pesticides and fertilisers

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (known as the COSHH Regulations) are designed to protect employees exposed to substances hazardous to health, including fertilisers and many pesticides. Employers must prevent, or where this isn’t possible, control potential risks from workplace exposure to hazardous chemicals. For more information, see the Worker Safety page.

As a pesticide product moves through the approval process, its potential to cause harm is assessed. The approval document and the label of the product explain any environmental or operator protection necessary to reduce any risks to an acceptable level. Using the appropriate personal protective equipment and any other protective methods or apparatus is required by law.

According to the Chemicals (Hazard Information and Packaging for Supply) Regulations 2009 (also known as the CHIP Regulations) chemical manufacturers and suppliers must ensure that dangerous substances are packaged and labelled appropriately.

Labelling is particularly important in communicating hazards to anyone who uses those substances, enabling them to take necessary steps to prevent harm. A typical label might include warning such as ‘explosive’, or ‘highly flammable’. Pesticide products are also labelled according to CHIP requirements.

The Code of Practice for using plant protection products also gives advice on how to use pesticides safely. This is a statutory code and can be used in evidence if there is a breach of pesticides legislation.

Protecting the environment

There is growing concern about the polluting impact of pesticides and fertilisers on surface and ground waters. There are strict laws designed to prevent, minimise or clean-up water pollution from agricultural sources.

The Water Resources Act 1991 makes it a criminal offence to cause or allow any poisonous, noxious or polluting matter to enter any controlled waters (e.g. rivers, coastal waters, inland freshwaters, ground waters).

The Environment Agency has powers under this Act to require polluters to remove or reduce polluting matter and remedy damage to the watercourse. Failure to comply with the Agency’s request also constitutes an offence, punishable by a maximum fine of £20,000 and/or three months’ imprisonment.

A criminal offence is not committed where a discharge is made in accordance with the terms of a water discharge consent issued by the Agency.

There are more specific laws dealing with particular types of water sources and polluting matter. The Groundwater Regulations 1998, for example, prohibit or restrict the release of certain listed substances, including substances often found in pesticides and fertilisers.

There are also laws designed to reduce nitrates from agriculture entering waters, such as the Nitrate Pollution Prevention Regulations 2008 which identify ‘Nitrate Vulnerable Zones’. These are areas in which strict rules must be followed on the quantity and timing of applying manufactured nitrogen fertilisers.

In conjunction with these laws, the Agency is required under the Water Framework Directive Regulations 2003 to carry out detailed monitoring and analysis of river basins, prepare river basin management plans setting out environmental objectives and ensure that those objectives are met.

The Code of Practice for using plant protection products (above) also gives advice on how to use pesticides safely. This is a statutory code and can be used in evidence if there is a breach of pesticides legislation. This code of practice is an approved code under the Groundwater Regulations 1998.

Dealing with waste pesticides and fertilisers

A company cannot handle waste pesticides and fertilisers unless it has already obtained an environmental permit from the Environment Agency (Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2007). A permit application must include an assessment of environmental risks of the proposed waste management activities.

The Environment Agency must be satisfied that the assessment is sufficiently robust and that adequate control measures have been put in place before a permit will be granted. If a permit is granted, the Agency can impose certain conditions (e.g. safety conditions) on the applicant company which must be fulfilled.

The Code of Practice for using plant protection products (above) gives guidance on handling and disposing of pesticide waste, including concentrates, ready-to-use formulations, pesticide formulations, contaminated material and equipment, and pesticide packaging.

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