Western Mail Profiles: Dr Elen Stokes

‘‘Nano’ labelling will reveal little about products’

Dr Elen Stokes is a lecturer in law at Cardiff University who is researching the role of law in regulating risks to health and the environment.

WHEN you next visit the supermarket, see how many products you spot claiming to contain “nano”. Lots of everyday products have been enhanced with nanomaterials, but they are difficult to find. The fact that nanomaterials are impossible to identify without a microscope makes it harder still.

By this time next year, it will be a different matter. New EU law comes into force requiring all cosmetic products with nanomaterial ingredients to be labelled ‘nano’. The same requirement will be introduced a year later for food. But what does it mean to say a product contains nanomaterials?

The basic idea behind nanotechnology is that materials start to behave differently below a certain size, 100 nanometres (equivalent to 0.0001 millimetres). As their dimensions become smaller, they can display new and unusual properties.

For consumers this means advanced and better performing products. The cosmetics industry has long used titanium dioxide in sunscreens to absorb UV rays, for example. Now many cosmetics companies are using titanium dioxide nanoparticles because they offer more effective UV filters and appear on the skin clear, not white.

The potential benefits of nanomaterials are significant but there are increasing concerns that the characteristics that make them useful will also lead to new risks to human health and the environment. Coupled with that, there is very little information out there on how these risks can be identified, assessed and controlled.

We are beginning to know how some nanomaterials behave on contact with the human body or the environment but many are too new for us to be able to predict long-term effects.

To deal with this legislators have a range of options in front of them. For instance, they could do nothing until there is concrete evidence of harm, require more rigorous testing, impose more restrictive safety standards, or ban them altogether until we know more.

As a researcher in health and environmental law, I find it interesting that the EU has opted for labelling as its primary legal response. The aim is to allow consumers to make informed decisions about the goods they buy.

EU legislators insist that the label “nano” is not meant to convey anything other than product content. It is not intended to mean ‘more beneficial’ or “riskier”.

Yet without anything additional, even to indicate the persistent uncertainty over effects, there is little to be gained from the four-letter word.

More needs to be done. The first step is to break the habit of relying solely on conventional regulation (like labelling) and to develop more imaginative ways of dealing with uncertainty. One eye should of course remain on closing information gaps but, until we have a firmer grip on the effects of nanomaterials, the other eye should be on promoting frank discussion between consumers, manufacturers, scientists and politicians about the limits to our understanding.

Current legislation focuses so much on known risks that it can lead us to overlook the bits that are unknown and open to debate. It is worth remembering that even when a product label is accurate (“contains nano”), it is not complete.

To contact Elen email stokeser@cardiff.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on the 25th July 2011, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.