Nanomaterials: Getting the measure

Innovation can bring benefits, but possible risks too. The emergence of nanotechnology, which manipulates barely visible materials for industrial purposes, is a case in point, and policymakers are taking a close look.

All kinds of nanomaterials are now found in common household items, from sports gear and sunscreens to socks and dresses, from beds and shampoos for pets to mobile phones and computer processors. Like any innovative technology, nanotechnology has the potential for producing unimagined benefits–and unintended risks. The OECD has been at the forefront of international efforts to minimise those risks since 2005. These days, co-operation is intensifying as nanomaterials become part of our everyday landscape.

Nanotechnology refers to a range of technologies that aim to manipulate individual atoms and molecules in order to create new products and processes. The characteristics of materials, particularly their colour, strength, conductivity and reactivity, change substantially when their atoms and molecules are manipulated. For instance, a material that is red or flexible at the metre scale may be green or stronger than steel at the nanoscale–where one nanometre equals 1/80,000 the width of a human hair. Where are the risks?

Most nanomaterials are probably perfectly safe for the general public, particularly in solid form, but there is some uncertainty about health risks if, for instance, toxic nanoparticles enter the body through the skin or are inhaled, and about environmental risks when nanoparticles are released into soil and water systems.

Clearly, health and safety are vital policy concerns, but will new rules be needed? This is a legitimate question policymakers usually pose when it comes to innovations like nanotechnology. After all, new legislation can be time-consuming and costly, and can bring unnecessary burdens on producers and consumers alike.

The OECD has led co-ordinated policy action on evaluating the safety of nanomaterials for half a decade, thanks in no small part to the fact that the organisation is the home of the internationally accepted Guidelines for the Safety Testing of Chemicals. The OECD has been reviewing these guidelines to determine whether they can be applied to nanomaterials and has published a preliminary review.

Under a sponsorship programme, OECD countries, China and the Business and Industry Advisory Committee of the OECD (BIAC) are working together to fund the testing of 14 nanomaterials that are either on the market today or close to it. Each material is being tested for about 60 qualities relevant to human health and environmental safety. Since the cost of such testing is around €3 million per material, the total budget for the programme will run to some €30 million. The aim of the programme is to determine whether such materials can be tested successfully. This is expensive, time-consuming and labourious work, but given the stakes, governments and other stakeholders are committed to it. Those delegations involved are also determined to be as open and transparent as possible concerning the testing, with the results to be made publicly available as soon as possible. To date, the OECD has published guidance on how the testing should be undertaken. From July this year, plans will be published for each nanomaterial that will explain exactly the forms being tested, who is doing the testing and for what.

Given the uncertainties, the OECD is also considering what further role policymakers should play in enhancing public safety concerning nanomaterials. The organisation’s Working Party on Manufactured Nanomaterials, established in 2006, disseminated a questionnaire in 2008 to identify applicable regulatory regimes, both those now in force and proposed, and how they address information requirements, identify hazards, mitigate exposure, and assess and manage risks associated with manufactured nanomaterials. While none of the 24 respondents reported having legislation specific to nanomaterials, most said that current laws include the authority to regulate substances that are nanomaterials, or products containing nanomaterials. Fourteen of the 24 respondents confirmed that they require product registration or notification and an assessment of the substance before it goes to market.

While working concertedly through the OECD, regional organisations, such as the European Commission, and business associations, individual countries are also formulating their own policies to develop nanotechnologies responsibly. In May 2009, for example, the Australian government announced a four-year National Enabling Technologies Strategy to provide a framework for the responsible development of biotechnology, nanotechnology and other new technologies. It calls for a governmentwide approach to policy development, regulation, public engagement and co-ordinated involvement in international efforts to address health and safety issues. The Dutch Action Plan Nanotechnology, formulated in 2008, includes proposals on managing risks, research and innovation, communicating about the technology with the wider society, and addresses legal aspects. The budget for its proposed strategic research agenda, slated to start this year, is €100 million a year, of which 15% will be devoted to risk research.

Japan’s Ministry of the Environment issued “Guidelines for preventing the environmental impact of manufactured nanomaterials” in 2009, with the aim of providing manufacturers with all available information on the environmentally sound management of manufactured nanomaterials. The US makes available a similar set of guidelines, “Approaches to Safe Nanotechnology: Managing the Health and Safety Concerns Associated with Engineered Nanomaterials”, with the aim of summarising the recommendations of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and encouraging an exchange of information among all who produce and use nanomaterials. Meanwhile, in the UK, the British Standards Institute has developed guidance on labelling and safe handling and disposal of nanomaterials, while a non-governmental stakeholder group formulated the Responsible Nano Code, a framework of best practice for organisations that develop, manufacture, sell or dispose of products using nanotechnologies.

Are these initiatives and many other similar reports and actions enough or will other risk-assessment or risk-management moves, such as labelling, be helpful? This is the kind of question OECD work is busily evaluating. What is clear is even the smallest of technologies can have large-scale policy implications. All countries are in the same boat when it comes to nanomaterials, and many may have to adapt their existing regulatory frameworks to address them. The OECD is determined to ensure this is done fairly, transparently and with public safety as a priority.


OECD (2010), “Current development/activites on the safety of manufactured nanomaterials in member countries and non-member economies”, Series of Safety of Manufactured Nanomaterials, No 20, Paris.

OECD (2005), “Report of the OECD Workshop on the Safety of Manufactured Nanomaterials: Building Cooperation, Co-ordination and Communication”, Series of Safety of Manufactured Nanomaterials, No 1, Paris.

©OECD Observer No. 279, May 2010

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