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Paper Provides Summary of Potential Opportunities and Risks of Nanotechnology

In October, the German Federal Agency for the Environment (Umweltbundesamt, UBA) stated its position on the handling of nanomaterials as well as nanoproducts potentially fraught with risk and published a study entitled "Nanotechnik für Mensch und Umwelt - Chancen fördern und Risiken mindern". It called for more transparency and sounded a note of caution resulting in a considerable media hype and irritation among many stakeholders.

The background paper provides a summary of the potential opportunities and risks of nanotechnologies. Special emphasis was put on environmentally beneficial applications (such as, e.g., energy saving by means of weight reduction or improved environmental protection by using more efficient (nanostructured) catalysts, etc.). On the other hand, risks related to nanotechnology were illustrated by the alleged application of nanoparticles in cosmetics despite the "unclear risk situation", the asbestos-like properties of carbon nanotubes as well as possible environmental risks caused by the use and release of silver nanoparticles.

The UBA has already published a similar report in 2006 elucidating risks and opportunities and resulting in a recommendation for a common research program. Compared to this, the recent recommendations are far more precise and concrete. Among other things, the UBA is claiming the refinement of the definition of nanoparticles, the implementation of a compulsory registration for nanoproducts and disclosure of relevant data by the manufacturers. As long as the impact of the enclosed nanoparticles on human health and environment is not fully analyzed and understood, the UBA recommends avoiding nanoproducts. Therewith, the UBA is following the recent statement of the European Parliament formulated last April and indirectly requires compliance with the principle of "no data, no market".

In response to the paper, the industry association NanoBioNet criticised the UBA for advising against nanotechnology and called for more objectivity. It was raised the question why the publication of the UBA report in various journals (e.g., Spiegel, Focus) caused considerable uproar although the UBA assured that the report did not include any new facts. UBA on his part is not accepting the allegation that the dossier implied any key future technology warning (Spiegel online, Wissenschaft, 21.10.2009).

The current problems might be attributed on the one hand to the very short and therefore simplified manner in which the report explains some potential risks, in disregard of some of the controversial debates and the complex context surrounding these issues. On the other hand, some stakeholders were not satisfied with the call for strict compliance with the precautionary principle (no data, no market), because this might lead to a general stigmatization of “nanotechnology”.

The vehement responses to the UBA report have shown that risk communication can create novel risks itself. In particular, media coverage on selected risk aspects does not necessarily enhance the ability of the consumers to make more informed decisions on nanoproducts.. As a key element of preventing the “nano stigma”, manufacturers, processors and retailers of nanoproducts must be interested in revealing and transferring safety-relevant data to avoid that consumers are scared and irritated by media reporting.

Source: The Innovation Society

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