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Nanomaterials - Tiny particles, big risks?

Tuesday, February 17th 2009 9:33:57am

To the Editor:

This is an article from a series of monthly columns by Environmental Law Specialist Dianne Saxe, one of the top 25 environmental lawyers in the world, and Ms. Jackie Campbell.  These articles are available for publishing at no charge, provided Dr. Saxe and Ms. Campbell are cited as the authors.  Dr. Saxe can be contacted at (416) 962 5882 or For more information, visit

Nanomaterials  - Tiny particles, big risks?
By: Dianne Saxe and Jackie Campbell

Canada's regulators are struggling to catch up with the explosion of nanotechnology, the use of tiny molecular structures. New nanomaterials are already being put in over 600 consumer products, from car wax, clothing and cosmetics to sunscreens, paints, and sports equipment.  Most nanomaterials ended up in these products without prior government scrutiny, and they are rarely disclosed on labels.

Are they safe? One nanometre is a hundred thousand times smaller than a human hair. Many ordinary substances have astonishing new properties when they are made this small.  Some of these novel properties have significant health and environmental benefits, but they could also be the next generation's DDT or PCBs. An expert panel appointed by the Council of Canadian Academies recently concluded that we don't yet know enough to assess the human and environmental risks of nanomaterials.  How well do our laws protect us from possible harm from nanomaterials?

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA), is Canada's main law for managing risks from chemicals. It sets tougher rules for "new" substances than for "existing" ones. 'New' substances get a risk assessment under CEPA's New Substances Notification Regulations (NSNR) before they can be manufactured or used in Canada.  CEPA rarely requires evaluation of 'existing' substances, meaning anything listed on the Domestic Substances List (DSL) by chemical name.

That's the key: the chemical name. Most nanomaterials have the same chemical name as their conventional counterparts, even though they may have different health or environmental consequences. Another problem is that Canada only tries to regulate nanomaterials that are used or manufactured here, not those in products that are imported already made. If your car wax etc. was made in China, CEPA doesn't apply.

Environment Canada is aware of the gap.  In June 2007, it told manufacturers and importers that nanomaterials are "new" substances, even if their chemical name is listed on the DSL, if the nanomaterial has 'unique structures or molecular arrangements'.  Unfortunately, it is not clear what this means.  Some scientists fear that many nanosubstances, with new and significant characteristics, are still 'getting through' as 'existing' substances, thus bypassing risk assessment.

Nanomaterials can also escape risk assessment in other ways. For example, they are typically manufactured or imported in small quantities below those required to trigger notification under the NSNR.  Yet nanomaterials are so potent that even tiny amounts can have significant impact. As well, the current regulations relate to chemicals and polymers, and neither category may be appropriate for nanomaterials.  

In September 2007, Environment Canada and Health Canada published a proposed regulatory framework for nanotechnology, under CEPA. However, we're probably years away from this "framework" leading to actual regulations. The framework will start with information-gathering through a voluntary reporting scheme for industries that use nanotechnology; communication with industries and the public;  and considering whether to amend CEPA or the NSNR. They will also work on what names are given to nanomaterials; Canada is helping to lead international work on standard terminology.

Canada's regulatory system is supposed to be based on the precautionary principle, namely that that where there is significant uncertainty, we should be cautious to protect human health and the environment.  Yet nanomaterials have already in use, before we have even decided how to regulate them.

So, do current regulations protect us from nanotechnology? Don't count on it.

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