The Council of Canadian Academies has released a new report which warns that the health and environmental risks posed by nanomaterials are both serious and poorly understood. The CCA report also warns that “current [Canadian] regulatory triggers are not sufficient to identify all nanomaterials entering the market that may require regulatory oversight”. That is, some – if not many – nanomaterials remain effectively unregulated, and don’t even trigger new safety assessments before they are used in products like cosmetics, sunscreens, food packaging or clothes.

Because particles behave differently once they are at the extremely tiny nanoscale, their toxicity cannot be predicted from what we know of the same substance in bigger form. In fact we know that many nanomaterials now in commercial use, like zinc, titanium oxide and silver, are more toxic in nano form that they are in bulk form.

Yet Canadian regulation – like regulation in Australia and elsewhere – does not recognise this key issue of particle size. If a substance has been approved for use in bulk form, new use of the substance in nanoparticle form does not trigger new safety testing.

The Council of Canadian Academies recommended that to close the large gaps in Canada’s regulation of nanotechnology, several key actions are required:

“First, an interim classification of nanomaterials should be developed. Second, the current regulatory “triggers” –i.e., the criteria used to identify when a new material or product should be reviewed for health and environmental effects – should be reviewed, as existing mechanisms will not identify all nanomaterials and nanoproducts. Third, standardized approaches for the proper handling of nanomaterials should be developed to ensure proper worker safety. Finally, the current metrological capacity for nanomaterials should be strengthened to ensure effective surveillance of their effects on consumers, workers and the environment.”

It also recommended a life-cycle, case by case assessment of the health and environment risks posed by nanomaterials. It noted that this: “mandate[s] a coordinated approach across agencies within government, among levels of government and with international partners in order to avoid duplication of effort and the creation of inconsistent or conflicting regulatory regimes”.

The Council of Canadian Academies recognised that broad participation of the general public is a “critical aspect” in establishing an effective, credible regulatory regime for nanotechnology. “Providing meaningful avenues for public participation in the formulation of regulatory policies governing nanomaterials is essential for the establishment and maintenance of public confidence in this technology”.

The Council drew the somewhat optimistic conclusion that if the many regulatory gaps were filled, regulatory triggers were amended, new risk assessment procedures and metrics were introduced that are appropriate to nanomaterials, greater investment was made in risk research and greater coordination took place among relevant government bodies, that Canada’s existing regulatory frameworks could manage the new risks associated with nanomaterials.

“The existing Canadian regulatory approaches and risk management strategies are appropriate for the challenges presented by nanomaterials, provided that a greater investment is made in strategic research associated with the risk assessment of these materials, that attention is paid to addressing issues of classification, regulatory triggers and regulatory capacity, and that regulatory agencies coordinate their activities with each other, between federal and provincial levels of government and with the regulatory agencies of other countries.”

The report “Small is different: A science perspective on the regulatory challenges of the nanoscale” can be accessed here.