Mixed reaction to creation of nanomaterial observatory


An initiative to improve information around nanomaterials will go live from the middle of next year.

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and the European Commission agreed to start working on the European Union Observatory for Nanomaterials (EU-ON) last week.

It was welcomed by industry but called ‘not fit for purpose’ by a group of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Information sources will include data from EU legislation regulating the use of nanomaterials (e.g. REACH, biocides, cosmetics), from national inventories, research projects and market studies.

Nanomaterials are very small particles mostly in the range of 1 to 100 nanometres (nm).

Nanotechnologies can be applied to food ingredients and nanosensors in packaging provide consumers with information on issues such as temperature.

The European Commission’s definition of engineered nanomaterial is still expected this year and for adoption in 2017.  

The role of EU-ON

The first of three phases will explain what nanomaterials are, how they are used and will deal with safety issues and contain links to research projects.

In this part, which goes live in summer 2017, the observatory will only collect information already available and not generate new data.

Later work will include search functionalities and more detailed product information.

Geert Dancet, executive director of ECHA, said there is already a lot of information available.

“The challenge has been to navigate and find information that is easily understandable and relevant for a wider audience. Our goal is for EU-ON to become a trustworthy source of information that contributes to a well-balanced public debate on nanomaterials.”

The Commission said EU-ON was identified as preferable to setting up legislation which would require companies to register nanomaterials and products containing nanomaterials.

This option has been taken up by France, Belgium and Denmark and advocated by several non-governmental organisations.

The Commission added the focus is on information relevant to identify and manage risks, rather than imposing blanket measures.

A mixed reaction

The Nanotechnology Industries Association (NIA) welcomed the agreement.

“[We] support ECHA in the building up of a platform presenting unbiased, science-based information that is respectful of confidential business information,” said the group, which counts 3M, BASF, IMERYS and Solvay among members.

NIA emphasises that the existing REACH and CLP regulation provide an appropriate framework for regulating nanomaterials and supports the modification of REACH annexes to clarify the registration, evaluation and authorisation of nanomaterials in Europe.”

The European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) also supported the transparency measures.

“This observatory will ensure access to clear and understandable information on nanomaterials by collecting readily available data from various sources, including REACH.

“Chemical companies are already legally required to complete several European national databases on substances and products.”

The group, with members including Arkema, Borealis, Ecolab, Merck and Unilever, said it would ‘proactively collaborate’ with ECHA and other interested parties in setting up the observatory.

However, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said the observatory will enforce the status quo with no benefits for consumers.

For almost 10 years, NGOS, consumer groups, Member States and research organisations have been calling for information about the nature, quantity and uses of nanomaterials, and the products containing them, to be publicly available.

“The observatory will only compile and repackage existing information, much of which is based on marketing claims.

“The observatory as such will do nothing to inform citizens and experts, and is therefore a waste of taxpayer's money. This is why environmental and consumer organizations refuse to participate in it.”

ECOS, CIEL, ClientEarth, ANEC, BEUC, HEAL, Oeko Institute, AVICENN, Agir pour l'environnement and Zero Association for the sustainability of the earth system supported the EEB position.

The agreement with the ECHA host the Observatory for Nanomaterials covers an initial five years.

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