With the scandal of forever chemicals making headlines and thoughts of safety first always on everyone’s lips, concerns have grown over the nanomaterial industry’s lack of transparency.

This recently came to a head with the EU Commission reporting in February 2020 that the “ECHA [the European Chemicals Agency] has so far received a low number of registration dossiers for nanomaterials. By 1 January 2020, only 36 substances covering nanoforms have been registered according to the updated REACH requirements – 10 % of what the Agency expected.”

So where did the industry go wrong, why is secrecy so paramount for nanomaterial companies, and should politicians be concerned by the low registration rate for nanotechnology products?

This is the second part of a two-part look at how the nanomaterial industry is facing its obligations towards safety, transparency, and public health. To learn more read: In the Spotlight: Nanomaterial Safety and Transparency Part One

In a recent interview, Carlos Eduardo Lima da Cunha, a Policy Officer at European Commission outlined the authorities’ main goal of streamlining the safety process for nanomaterials. Saying that, “We are trying to simplify the bureaucratic processes that are involved in all of this. To close the gap between the innovator and the regulator, in a way that has them talk much earlier rather than only talking at the end of the product.”

With this in mind, EU governing bodies have attempted to streamline testing processes that ensure product safety. As the ECHA website states, The EU has, “… developed and heavily supported the use of Open Innovation Testbeds in recent years. These testing facilities focus on characterisation and assessment of a certain functionality. They implement and develop standardised testing guidelines to assess any product prototype.”

However, the approach towards testing nanomaterials to evaluate how safe they are, raises questions over levels of acceptable risk and what is truly ‘safe’.

As da Cunha, explains, “What we want to make sure is that whatever products reach the market that has nanomaterials in them or is directly nanomaterials are as safe as they can be, as much as our state-of-the-art methods can allow.”

This is a point also highlighted by the ECHA, which notes that, “Within the field of nanotechnology, the European Union Observatory for Nanomaterials is an excellent platform for presenting the general public with the results and work of several European projects in a transparent and direct way. Efforts have also been made to develop a transdisciplinary risk governance council for nanomaterials as a mechanism to enable industry, regulators, academia and civil society to take part in discussions and share advice on nanomaterial risk acceptance.”

But beyond concerns of risk, and health, and safety, perhaps the biggest driver towards registration of nanomaterials to the REACH system is that it allows for greater business opportunities for nanomaterial producers and traders in Europe.

As the Global Graphene Group (G3) recently announced, the company has finalized REACH certification for its second product. The press release stating how, “Gi-PW-B050 (N002-PDR), a high-density single layer of graphene oxide with low oxygen content on its surface and high surface area, has achieved the REACH certification. G3 is registered with REACH to ship one to 10 metric tons of its N002-PS product into the EU annually with C.S.B. GmbH., the only representative for G3 in the EU.”

The economic benefits of completing the process were highlighted by Adam Quirk, Global President of Taiwan Graphene Company for G3, when he said, “The addition of this product being REACH certified will help us ramp up our business in Europe. I’m proud of our team’s continued work and focus to get more of our products REACH certified.”

Clearly there are advantages and disadvantages to be had for both individual nanomaterial companies and the industry as a whole for transparency. Improving product safety is in everyone’s interest, but at the same time added bureaucracy should be kept to a minimum while maintaining the right to protect trade secrets.

Perhaps at present there are too many unknowns in such a young industry to fully dictate where the line should be drawn. Instead, further research of nanomaterial products and analysis of how the nanotechnology industry operates is required.

As the American Medical Association’s report makes clear, “One could argue that since the risks of Engineered Nanomaterials (ENMs) - and strategies for minimizing them - are poorly understood at this point, policymakers should (1) use existing laws to regulate ENMs and the best available evidence to set regulation levels without creating new laws or an overarching system to regulate ENMs and (2) support additional research on the risks of ENMs. These and other precautions can offer a way to minimize and manage the public health and environmental risks of ENMs without sacrificing their potential medical, social, and economic benefits.”

For while the claims of a lack of industry transparency are valid, the fact that nanomaterials hold great benefits for every part of society is indisputable.

Photo credit: Patrick Hendry on Unsplash, Pexels, & Deafstar at Freeimages