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Safety of nano in electrical equipment

Examples of electrical and electronic equipment

If you buy an item of electrical equipment which contains nanomaterials, or is made using nanotechnology, it will be subject to a number of laws. Electronic equipment can include things like household appliances (e.g. kettle, iron, coffee-maker), IT and telecoms equipment, audiovisual equipment (TV, video, hi-fi), lighting, electrical and electronic tools, toys, and leisure and sports equipment.

What do the laws say?

Placing equipment on the market

Electrical equipment must be safe before being placed on the market. The Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 1994 apply to any person who supplies electrical equipment in the course of business. These Regulations are enforce by local authority trading standards departments if equipment is intended for consumer use, and by the Health & Safety Executive if it is for use in the workplace.

Additional requirements are imposed for electrical equipment containing hazardous substances. According to the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations 2006, electrical and electronic equipment cannot be placed on the market if it contains more than the permitted quantity of hazardous substances.

‘Hazardous substances’ under the Regulations include lead, mercury and polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs). For example, the Regulations set the maximum permitted level of lead at 0.1%. Electrical equipment with quantities of lead exceeding this amount is banned from the market. These Regulations are enforced by the National Measurement Office.

Getting rid of waste equipment

As well as laws to control the safety of electrical equipment coming onto the market, there is law on the handling of electrical equipment after it has been used. The key law here is the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations 2006 (more commonly known as the WEEE Regulations), designed to ensure that when electrical and electronic equipment is no longer used it is collected separately, treated, re-used, recycled, or disposed of in an environmentally-friendly way.

The WEEE Regulations apply to any company that handles (e.g. produces, imports, distributes, sells, stores, recycles, disposes) electrical and electronic equipment. Basically, the Regulations are relevant to almost all businesses.

Obligations under the WEEE Regulations are different depending on the type of waste equipment (i.e. household or non-household) and the role of the person subject to legal requirements (i.e. producer or distributor). They are enforced by the Environment Agency and, in the case of cars, the Vehicle Certification Agency. For further information, click here

For example, all household electrical and electronic equipment should be marked with a crossed out wheeled bin sign to encourage users to discard it separately from normal household waste. Distributors must offer in-store take-back schemes where household users can return waste equipment, free of charge, to be recycled.

They are also required to provide consumers with information on the environmental impacts of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, and the benefits of re-using, recycling and preventing waste equipment from reaching landfill sites.

Waste equipment which is collected separately, stored and then treated is dealt with by a different piece of law: the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2007. Anyone intending to treat waste equipment must have been granted a licence by the Environment Agency.

Do these laws cover nano?

Yes. Even though they don’t explicitly refer to ‘nano’, the laws cover all electrical and electronic equipment whether or not it was made using nano materials and processes.

Are these laws adequate in dealing with nano?

Uncertain environmental effects

One of the biggest concerns in this area is the environmental impact of nanomaterials on natural ecosystems. Certain nanomaterials may be persistent and bioaccumulate in the environment, with uncertain consequences.

At present, the laws do not prevent nano from reaching normal landfill sites. Consumers, for example, are not legally obliged to dispose of waste electrical equipment in any particular way, so there remains the possibility that nanomaterials can quite easily enter the environment.

Treatment and disposal

There are also concerns that even though the law deals with the treatment and disposal electrical equipment, different methods may be needed for equipment containing nano because of their uncertain health and environmental impacts. For more information, click here

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