Hubert Steinkemper, Head of Department at the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety addressed the meeting and emphasised the importance of addressing questions about regulatory tools in the governance of nanotechnologies in light of the increasing economic importance of nanotechnologies. To ensure the safety for humans and the environment while allowing innovations to happen, the dialogue among authorities and representatives of institutions and associations according to the well-established model of the Nano Authorities Dialogue represents an opportunity for an informal and unbureaucratic exchange.
The participants discussed the role of stakeholder dialogue using the example of the NanoKommission Germany 2009-2011 and its results. Stakeholder dialogue contributes to the process of early engagement with the topic and to an exchange of positions of different stakeholder groups. Stakeholder dialogue can be interpreted as an early warning system, enabling better assessment ofthe consequences of different courses of action. It was however rated differently how binding the results of stakeholder dialogues are, and what impact they should have in the concrete regulatory practice.
The work done under the NanoKommission was also appraised as working against the tendency of stigmatising “nano” as a high risk technology or generally hazardous. However, the participants also identified particular challenges in finding some common grounds among experts and stakeholders in the dialogue about hazard assessments based on emerging scientific data.
Nano Product Registers as a Tool for Governance
Several instruments for the governance of nanomaterials and nanoproducts have been considered; in particular, a nanomaterial register and a nanoproduct register, as well as the pros and cons of a labelling of nanomaterials in consumer products. It was discussed in what form these instruments could contribute to increasing transparency about the use of nanomaterials in consumer products.
While consumer interests seem to focus primarily on the freedom of choice whether to buy products with nanomaterials, authorities need to be able to quickly and adequately react, e.g. in case of a threat. The questions linked to the respective information requirements and the accessibility of data about nanomaterials in products have been controversially discussed using these examples:
- a restricted governmental register (to be used to trace back nanomaterials in case of an incident or to assess exposure)
- a publicly accessible nanoproduct register, and
- “simple” labelling of nanomaterials on consumer products
Providing information about the presence of certain ingredients in a product serves a different purpose than providing information about potentially hazardous properties of these ingredients. It was argued, on the one hand, that a nanoproduct register would increase transparency, but it would not eliminate the existing uncertainties in hazard assessment. A nanoproduct register should thus not be used to establish particular hazard labelling for “nano”. As a precondition for a nanoproduct register, there is a need for a definition of the term “nanomaterial”. Such work is currently underway at the European Commission and will be concluded in autumn.
Labelling of “nano” could lead to a stigmatisation of nanotechnologies in general. In the current situation regarding the availability of data, labelling alone would furthermore not allow hazardous products to be identified. It was furthermore questioned in what way a nano labelling (across all product sectors) would be interpreted by the consumers. While all ingredients are labelled in the food sector, labelling in the chemicals area indicates a hazard.
A nanoproduct register could also be interpreted as a temporary solution. In the form of a governmental register (data not publicly available) it could serve as a precautionary instrument as long as significant uncertainties in hazard assessment are considered to prevail. In case of an incident, precise information about the product formulation could be provided and traceability be ensured.