Canada: Taking Tiny Steps Toward Regulation Of Nanotechnology

Last Updated: June 11 2009
Article by Marc McAree

From ozone layer holes to mutating viruses to radon gas, we are all aware that what you can't see can definitely hurt you. Ultra-small nanoparticles could be the foundation of the next industrial revolution, ushering in a new 'Star Trek' age of molecular manipulation. But if left unregulated and unchecked, these substances could prove to be our generation's next environmental disaster.

Nanotechnology is the new cutting edge of science. It is estimated that more than 600 nanotechnology-based consumer products, made by 305 companies in 20 countries, are already on the market. By 2015, global nano-based commerce could be worth some $1.5 trillion.

Nanotechnologists work with materials at the molecular scale. Nanoparticles range between one to one hundred nanometers (a nanometer is one billionth of a metre) in diameter, thickness or total size. Nanotechnology is essentially the construction of new materials and structures using atom-by-atom design.

While governments have been eager to throw research and start-up money at the new technology, they have been much slower in addressing the potential human health and environmental threats that nanoparticles may pose.

Nanoscale materials can have very different properties from their macroscale counterparts. They exhibit a greater surface area to mass ratio, which can result in unique thermal, magnetic, electrical, or chemical behaviour. Substances that otherwise are nontoxic may become biologically reactive and toxic as nanoparticles.

These properties raise red flags about their potential health and environmental effects.

Nanoparticles can be easily absorbed through the skin, lungs or digestive tract. Once in the body, they may translocate to distant tissues and organ systems. They may be able to bioaccumulate and could even be genotoxic or carcinogenic.

The potential environmental risks are equally uncertain. Are nanomaterials toxic, persistent or bioaccumulative in nature? Are they hormone disruptive? Are nanomaterials the 21st millennium's DDT, its PCBs, its dioxins and furans? We don't know.

An expert panel assembled by the Council of Canadian Academies prepared a report on the health and environmental risks posed by nanomaterials, concluding that "too little is known" to assess the overall dangers.

We aren't sure how to measure exposures to nanomaterials. We don't know how to accurately monitor and track their effects in the workplace or the ambient environment. We can't even agree on how to define nanomaterials, the proper nomenclature, or the best way to classify and group them.

What's next? That's one more thing we don't know, although Ottawa apparently intends to control nanoparticles under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA).

In June 2007, Environment Canada released a New Substances Program Advisory announcing that nanomaterials will be regulated under CEPA's New Substances Notification (NSN) Regulations (Chemicals and Polymers). Any nanomaterials not listed on the Domestic Substances List, or with "unique structures or molecular arrangements" compared to their non-nano counterparts, require a NSN package, including a risk assessment.

In September 2007, Environment Canada released a Proposed Regulatory Framework for Nanomaterials. The department has started implementing parts of the framework, primarily the pursuit of talks at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Organization for Standardization, to achieve international collaboration on the definition and regulation of nanomaterials.

As part of the Framework, Environment Canada proposed conducting mandatory surveys under CEPA section 71 on nanotechnology use in Canada. The survey will target firms and institutions that manufacture or import more than one kilogram of nanomaterials in 2008. The information will be used to develop the national nanotechnology regulatory framework. To date, no request for information has been published in the Canada Gazette, and Environment Canada has not posted any details on its website.

In the interim, businesses that use nanotechnology must take appropriate steps to protect themselves. Corporate counsel should begin to consider possible future nano-related risks, including product liability, environmental costs and liabilities, and environmental due diligence when purchasing or transferring a business or commercial property.

Predicting the future is difficult. Perhaps nanotechnology will fail to dominate the commercial world. Other environmental and health problems may arise to monopolize your attention. But, if things do go wrong, no company wants to become the perpetrator of the next environmental disaster.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Marc McAree
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