In daily life, consumers use products of which the information on the label indicates that they have been produced with nanotechnology or contain nanomaterials. In some cases that is actually true, but the term ‘nano’ is sometimes also used as a marketing tool when the use of nanotechnology or nanomaterials has not been proven. RIVMNational Institute for Public Health and the Environment identifies and reports on new developments in this area for a broad audience and collaborates with other organisations in this field.

Which products contain nanomaterials?

In 2007, RIVMNational Institute for Public Health and the Environment published an inventory of consumer products that are available in Europe and contain nanomaterials. This list was updated in 2010 and 2017. Examples of these are cosmetics, such as sunscreen products that contain titanium dioxide nanoparticles as a UV filter, and textiles in which silver nanoparticles have been incorporated because of their antibacterial properties. Due to these characteristics, paint and food packaging can also contain nanoparticles. Since July 2013, food, biocides, and cosmetics that contain nanoparticles must be clearly labelled to contain nanomaterials. The ingredient in question must then be followed by “(nano)”. This helps the consumer to identify which products contain nanomaterials and provides freedom of choice.

Why apply nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is applied to improve the production process as well as the products themselves. In some cases, consumer products are manufactured with techniques that work on the nanoscale (nanotechnology). A well-known example is the increased storage capacity of computer memory chips due to nanotechnology. In other cases, nanoparticles may be added to the product.

What are the risks?

Increasing numbers of consumer products with nanomaterials are entering the European market. Relatively little is known about potential health risks to consumers in relation to these products. Often, it is not very likely that consumers will be directly exposed to the particles, as the particles are contained inside the product and are not released. As a result, they do not end up in the human body or the environment, which prevents risks. However, in a number of cases nanoparticles may end up in the environment or the human body, for example when a spray is used and nanoparticles can be inhaled.

To enable a risk assessment, information is needed on which products contain nanomaterials, on the hazard potential of these materials, and on the extent to which the consumer is actually exposed to them. Over the past years, the Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety of the European Commission (SCCS) assessed the safety of a number of cosmetic products containing nanomaterials. Cosmetic products with nanomaterials that are applied to the skin, such as sunscreen lotions with titanium dioxide nanoparticles, are currently considered safe to use, as opposed to a number of (sunscreen) sprays with nanomaterials. As the inhalation of nanoparticles can cause effects in the lungs, such as inflammation and possibly also cancer, the SCCS recommends not to use any cosmetics in the form of powders or sprays that contain nanoparticles.

Exposure of consumers to nanomaterials

In 2009 an RIVM report was published on the potential exposure of consumers to nanomaterials in products and in 2011 RIVM published a report with information on products that were analysed for the presence of nanomaterials. Such product measurements are important to determine whether nano-claims are valid. The quantity of nanomaterials in a product was also determined. Also in 2011, the European Commission (DG Environment) commissioned RIVM to conduct a study into the feasibility of setting up a European database containing measurement data on consumer products in Europe. For this study, a methodology was developed to identify consumer products that contain nanomaterials.

In 2016, to improve exposure estimates for nanomaterials after inhalation, RIVM developed the ConsExpo nano software. This software can be used to provide an estimate of how many nanoparticles from spray products end up in the lungs. It is based on the ConsExpo computer program, which can be used to estimate the exposure to chemical substances from consumer products.

Registration of consumer products

In Europe, there is no consensus as to whether it should be mandatory for manufacturers to register their products if these products contain nanomaterials or are produced using nanotechnology. A register of consumer products that contain nanomaterials could contribute to transparency and traceability.

Transparency means that it is clear which products contain nanomaterials. This allows the consumer to choose whether or not to buy a product containing nanomaterials. Traceability means that it is clear where the nanomaterials are produced and which products they end up in. This allows a quick and effective response in case of an incident involving a specific nanomaterial.

In anticipation of a decision by the European Commission, a number of member states have taken the initiative for a national register of products containing nanomaterials. These include France, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden. However, in 2017, the European Commission decided that it would not be feasible to introduce a mandatory harmonised European registration system. As an alternative, the European Union Observatory for Nanomaterials (EUON) has been established at ECHA for the purpose of collecting all available information on existing nanomaterials that have entered the EU market. The EUON has been established for various target groups: policymakers, consumers, employees of companies involved in nanomaterials, and NGOs. The website of the EUON provides further information about safety, innovation, research, and uses of nanomaterials.

In 2017, KIR-nano examined whether the EUON is a good alternative for the primary objectives of a European register, i.e. transparency and traceability. The conclusion was that the EUON is primarily a useful reference tool, as it collects all the information available on nanomaterials in one place. The objectives of a register are unlikely to be realised via the EUON, as the information is not detailed enough. The results of the study were published in August 2017.