Top scientists call for regulation of nano-particles in consumer goods

Babies' bottles, face-creams, tennis balls and many other items may contain the tiny chemical particles but little is known about their long-term impact on health and environment

Leading scientists are calling for the regulation of nano-particles in consumer goods until we better understand their longer-term impacts on human health and the environment.

Hundreds of consumer goods now contain nano-particles. Babies' bottles, face-creams, tennis balls, easy-care shirts, trousers, razors, smart phones, sun-tan lotions, Tupperware, even our socks may now include the tiny chemical particles. Nano-technology is the science of the very tiny, with particles measuring as small as 1/100,000th of a human hair. It has the potential to revolutionize medicine and combat climate change, but when chemicals are used in this form, they have different properties, which are not fully understood.

Professor Dame Ann Dowling of the Royal Society of Scientists says: "Chemicals in a nano-particle form have very different properties because they have increased surface area and therefore increased reactivity. They move around in the environment or in people differently from larger particles. That’s the reason they’re exciting and bring new possibilities, but that is not fully represented in legislation or regulation."

The Royal Society carried out a report into the potentials and risks of nano-technology in 2004. “Since our report was published, actually far more consumer products now contain nano-products and they tend to be the bits that are less regulated, like cosmetics.  Their use has increased in food as well, which is not something we thought would happen at the rate that it has. We were very concerned by the lack of regulation and that is still the case.”

Professor Dowling said that in many areas of nano-technology, the Royal Society didn’t see any concerns at all, but nano-particles used in a form where they’re free to react with people and environment  – for example in cosmetics and food – were a particular concern. “Free nano-particles move around in the environment and in the body in different ways from larger particles. Some of that is positive. There are medical uses of nano-particles which allow drugs to treat parts of the body that would be inaccessible otherwise. So, for example, nano-particles can pass through the blood-brain barrier and if you want to get drugs in the brain for treatment that is excellent, but that also means you ought to be looking at the effects of nano particles in consumer goods in parts of the body that you wouldn’t normally look for them.”

Consumer products containing nano-particles are widely available, not only in many electronic goods such as i-pods and electric shavers, fridges and hair-curling irons, but also in a growing number of personal care products. Cosmetics manufacturers such as L’Oréal and Lancôme advertise the revolutionary potential of micro-particles in anti-wrinkle creams, Nutricare Co adds ‘nano-liposomes’ to its organic baby cream, while many leading brands of sun-tan lotions have nano-sized particles of titanium dioxide. The anti-bacterial properties of silver have encouraged companies to add tiny silver particles to plastic food containers, dishcloths, as well as a range of baby goods. Clothes-makers are also making use of the new technology. It is now possible to buy socks that stop your feet smelling or material that doesn’t absorb water, so if you spill a cup of coffee over your shirt, the brown liquid quivers like a bubble on top of the material and can be wiped away without leaving a mark.  

Of the many companies contacted by the Independent on Sunday, only John Lewis, the Body Shop and Procter & Gamble responded. The Body Shop said: “We do have a very limited number of products that contain nano particles. Whilst all our products comply with the highest safety standards, and global regulations, we know that nano is a concern to our customers. So we have been actively removing them from our products through new product development.” John Lewis, which sells two suits containing nano-materials, said in a statement: “John Lewis supports development and innovation within nano-technology, provided the industry is well regulated. We will only sell products using nano-technology if they have been rigorously tested and are proven to be safe and fit for purpose. To enable customers to make informed choices, John Lewis will label products where nano-technology has been used.”

A spokesman for P&G, Dr Harald Schlatter, said: “We believe nano-technology holds great promise to bring benefits to consumers.  As with any technology, we will only use new nano-technologies after their safety has been thoroughly established and there are clear meaningful benefits for the consumer.” The only nano-particles that P&G uses in its grooming and beauty products are titanium dioxide and to a lesser extent zinc oxide, which are widely used in the cosmetics and sun-screen industry. Dr Schlatter said: “In addition to providing consumers with desired aesthetic properties, nano-particles used as sunscreens provide a major public health benefit and play a significant role in protecting people from the harmful effects of the sun.  P&G support reasonable, science-based measures helping to build and maintain the consumers’ trust in the benefits of nano-materials.”

There is no evidence that nano-particles harm consumers. Manufacturers of consumer goods have to carry out safety tests and convince European regulators that their products are safe. The problem, say scientists, is that their testing methodologies are not made public or peer-reviewed, and there remains uncertainty about the uncontrolled release of so many new nano-particles on the environment and their long-term impacts. Companies do not have to inform any authority if they are creating a new nano-particle and they do not have to state on the label if a product contains nano-particles. If a manufacturer produces more than one tonne of a new chemical they must submit a hazard report to the European Chemical Authority, but if they produce less than a tonne, which is often case with tiny nano-particles, there are no such requirements. Consequently there is no clear idea how much nano-material is being produced or by whom, although the European Commission estimates the annual total quantity of nano-materials on the global market is 11 million tones with a value of roughly 20bn euros.

Professor Vicki Stone from Herriot Watt University, is leading a European Commission funded project to fill in the gaps in our knowledge to enable the EC to draw up appropriate regulations. She says: “A company could be making a particle and could just change the way they make that particle to make it nano-sized. Currently companies don’t have to do anything legally to notify anyone of that. That is a problem. Companies will say ‘We haven’t changed the substance, we have changed the particle size.’ They assume that the underlying chemistry or biological reactivity will be the same and that is not always the case.”

Stone says the lack of information about how much nano-material is being produced makes it hard to assess risk: “One of the hardest things for us to do is measure exposure to nano-materials. It’s really, really difficult to measure the exposure of people, or to measure nano-materials in the environment, just because they are so small, so how do you distinguish between them and everything else that you’re exposed to including air pollution particles and clay particles. It’s like looking for a needle in a hay stack.”

Professor Stone, however, is confident that regulations will soon be in place to regulate nano-materials. “The European Commission and governments have been really proactive about nano-technology because they want it to succeed, but they want to succeed safely.  We have lots of information now that helps us to better understand what the risks of nano-materials are, but we still don’t have enough to do a full proper risk assessment.  However, there are good strategies in place to help us achieve that in the next ten to fifteen years.”

Earlier this year, the European Commission made recommendations to make its chemical regulations more relevant to nano-materials and in March, the British government established a nano-technology forum to discuss how to proceed safely with the new technology. France announced at a conference on European regulation of nano-materials late last year that it would bring in regulation of nano-materials in this month. Denmark already has regulation and Sweden has proposed it.

However, environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are calling for a moratorium on the sale of nano-materials in personal care products, food and clothing until regulations are in place and the impacts are better understood. Greenpeace scientist Dr David Santillo said: “There has been a lot of hype around nano-technology.   It may well be that there are nanotechnology solutions that will ultimately help us to reduce environmental problems and address certain health issues, but before we pursue a technology that is very difficult to control once it enters the market place and the waste stream,   we need to have a much higher degree of understanding about the potential health and environmental impacts.  That will depend on having proper testing regimes in place, critically before they are put on the market. One of the biggest problems we face is that the testing is coming after the marketing and, even from a layperson’s point of view, that is clearly unacceptable.”

Mike Childs of the Friends of the Earth said there were potentially “immense societal benefits” from using nano-technology in cancer treatment or solar panels but the ‘frivolous’ use of nano-technology in clothing, food and cosmetics should be halted until we have assessed the risks. “It’s highly debatable whether we need nano-silver in our socks to stop our feet smelling.  Is that essential for human wellbeing?”

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