The potential risks of nanomaterials have been on the agenda for international discussions for more than a decade. At the same time, the benefits to society from solutions provided by nanotechnology have been of equal interest to researchers and policy makers.
The global debate around the safety of nanomaterials is taking place in several international forums: the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations (UN), are all contributing to the development of knowledge on these materials.
The main focus is on how nanomaterials can be used and handled safely so that the benefits of nanotechnology can be realised.
The OECD has a long-standing programme for chemicals management and has played a fundamental role in harmonising regulatory methods for testing and assessing hazards of chemicals. The main vehicles for this have been internationally agreed test guidelines and the principles of Good Laboratory Practice (GLP).
Together, they have created conditions where a test performed according to OECD test guidelines are recognised by authorities in countries that adhere to the mutual acceptance of data (MAD). MAD is a legally binding instrument to facilitate the international acceptance of information for the regulatory safety assessment of chemicals. This has dramatically reduced the testing costs and limited the number of animals needed for testing purposes.
Today, much of the chemicals legislation in industrialised countries worldwide is underpinned by the results of the OECD Chemicals Programme. This also holds true for the hazard assessment of nanomaterials. The OECD Council Recommendation from 2013 on the Safety Testing and Assessment of Manufactured Nanomaterials states that existing international and national chemical regulatory frameworks is suitable to manage the risks associated with manufactured nanomaterials. However, it is also noted that these frameworks and other management systems may still need to be adapted to take into account the specific properties of manufactured nanomaterials.
In 2006, the OECD established the Working Party on Manufactured Nanomaterials (WPMN) to allow discussion on the hazard and risk assessment of nanomaterials. The main output so far has been an assessment of how the existing OECD test guidelines can be applied to 11 commonly used nanomaterials. Significant effort was put into the project and over 700 studies were generated throughout its course. The results were published by OECD during 2015.
WHO is looking at risk of chemicals to populations at a global level. For nanomaterials, WHO’s focus has been on the potential effects of nanomaterial exposure on workers.
The WHO is developing guidelines on ’Protecting Workers from Potential Risks of Manufactured Nanomaterials’. These guidelines aim to improve occupational health and the safety of workers potentially exposed to nanomaterials in a broad range of manufacturing and social environments.
The guidelines will incorporate elements of risk assessment and risk management and will provide recommendations to improve occupational safety and protect the health of workers using nanomaterials in all countries, but especially those in low and middle-income countries.
UNEP and UNITAR have a strong focus on capacity-building between developed and developing countries.
Together with the Inter-Organisation Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC), several regional workshops have been organised over the past five years aimed at increasing the knowledge of how to conduct risk assessment and management on these materials at a national level.
Their work has also provided an opportunity for countries to financially contribute to increasing the capacity of developing countries to be able to handle nano-safety issues.
SAICM is a policy framework to promote sound chemical management at a global level. It is closely linked to the goals agreed by the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in 2002.
One of these goals addresses chemicals directly. It states: ‘by 2020, all chemicals should be produced and used in a manner that significantly reduces their negative impact on humans and the environment’.
Under SAICM, an agreement has been reached on a ’Global Plan of Action’ to provide a strategy to meet the WSSD goals. This plan also contains actions on nanomaterials as well as, for example, lead in paint, endocrine disruptors and pesticides. Nanotechnologies and manufactured nanomaterials have been identified by SAICM as an emerging policy issue.