Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) state government has released the report of its 10 month Parliamentary Inquiry into nanotechnology. The Inquiry recognised the serious health and environment risks of nanoparticles and called for new safety testing and mandatory labelling of nanoparticles used in consumer products and workplaces. However the Inquiry ignored calls for critical examination of nanotechnology’s social and economic implications, and for public participation in decision making over research priorities, governance and regulation.

FoEA welcome the Inquiry’s calls for nanoparticles to be treated as new chemicals and to face mandatory labelling

The Inquiry recommended that given their novel toxicity risks, all nanoparticles be assessed by regulators as new chemicals (which would trigger new safety testing). It further recommended that nanoparticles used in foods, sunscreens, cosmetics and workplaces face mandatory labelling. This is a huge breakthrough and puts NSW, Australia’s most populous state, at odds with the federal government over management of this powerful new technology.

At present both the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA, federal sunscreens regulator) and Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ, federal foods regulator) are rejecting calls for specific new safety tests of nanoparticle ingredients and for mandatory labelling. The approach of the TGA has recently been questioned by medical and legal academics at the Australian National University and Monash University who suggested that given the serious nature of nanoparticle risks, the TGA should take a precautionary approach to the management of nano sunscreens. Both new safety testing and mandatory labelling were also recommended in 2004 by the world’s oldest scientific institution the United Kingdom’s Royal Society.

Mandatory labelling of nanoproducts is supported by Australia’s peak consumer body and the overwhelming majority of the public

The Australian Consumers Association (Choice) has previously called for mandatory labelling of nanotechnology products. Similarly, a recent opinion poll of 1010 Australians commissioned by Friends of the Earth and carried out by Essential Research found 92% support for mandatory labelling of nanoparticle ingredients used in food and food packaging and 96% support for mandatory safety testing of these ingredients. With the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry adding its voice to calls from consumer and environment groups for mandatory labelling and new safety testing of nanoparticles used in food, sunscreens and cosmetics, the refusal of the TGA and FSANZ to require mandatory labelling or new safety testing of nanoparticle ingredients is becoming untenable.

The Committee’s failure to support a moratorium is disappointing

FoEA welcomes the Committee’s recommendation to treat nanoparticles as new chemicals and to label them. However we are disappointed that the Inquiry did not support our calls for a halt to commercial sales of nanoproducts until such times as adequate new regulatory structures can be established, the knowledge gaps that preclude satisfactory new risk assessment can be filled and the measurement and monitoring technologies required to underpin mandatory labelling are developed. This could take years. In the meantime, the public, workers and the environment face ongoing exposure that early research suggests introduces new toxic risks.

The Inquiry also rejected calls to examine nanotechnology’s economic and social implications

The NSW Parliamentary Inquiry rejected calls from Friends of the Earth to subject the claimed economic and social benefits of nanotechnology to critical scrutiny. We strongly urged the Committee to recommend that nanotechnology’s wider social, economic, ethical and democratic implications be assessed alongside its implications for human health and environmental safety.

Friends of the Earth is concerned that while future ‘benefits’ offered by nanotechnology are used to justify exposing the public, workers and the environment to toxic risks now, such benefits are never subject to the scrutiny or critical evaluation they warrant. Specifically, we suggested to the Inquiry that nanotechnology could have unintended, even negative, consequences for sales of Australian commodities like cotton or copper or for our labour markets. We pointed out that the huge investment of public funds (around AU$170-200 million each year) in nanotechnology development requires critical examination of its economic potential.

It is irresponsible to simply assume that all nanotechnology development will necessarily deliver economic benefit. However the Committee allocated only 3 short paragraphs in its 180 page report to discussing these issues. It reported the comments of a government spokesperson who thought that these issues were “not yet on the public’s ‘radar'” and the head of the Innovation Department who said that there had been no modelling of potential labour market implications. It noted that “this will require analysis and consideration by governments in the future”.

Calls for public participation in decision making were ignored

A further source of serious disappointment was the Committee’s failure to take seriously – or even acknowledge in its report – our calls for public participation in decision making about nanotechnology. The Committee stressed the importance of ‘educating’ the public about nanotechnology and promoting greater ‘awareness’.

Friends of the Earth is concerned that all too often activities to promote ‘awareness’ aim to promote public acceptance of new technologies, and of decisions that have already been taken. We are instead calling for a meaningful involvement of the public in decision making regarding: – whether or not Australia should pursue nanotechnology development, including establishing if there are some applications which the public wants to see developed and others applications that it does not – better targetting of public funds for research and development to reflect community preferences and priorities – developing future National Nanotechnology Strategies – governance and regulation.

We are alarmed that the Committee commented that too much publicly available information about nanotechnology is critical of it, and that the NSW Government should provide information that redressed this perceived imbalance: “Throughout the Inquiry the Committee was concerned that much of the information on nanotechnology provided in the public arena, particularly via print, was negative. Instances include calls by some for a moratorium, and reports of research indicating potential adverse impacts of specific nanomaterials….

A NSW Government Statement on Nanotechnology would serve to raise public awareness of nanotechnology and perhaps serve to balance the information that is being accessed by the public.” Given that information on nanotechnology provided by all governments and regulators is already highly favourable, we would hate to see greater efforts to counter the small but growing media coverage of nanotechnology’s health and environment risks.

If further promotion of nanotechnology ‘benefits’ – which remain speculative and unassessed – is part of government efforts to promote ‘awareness’, it would confirm our fears that such efforts will simply be a ploy to promote uncritical public acceptance of nanotechnology expansion.

For the full report of the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry visit:

For Friends of the Earth’s submission and supplementary submission to the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry, visit our publications page.