UK firms help draw up voluntary code of practice on nanotech

UK businesses, investors, NGOs and scientists are working together to develop a nanotechnology code of practice. The initiative is one of a series aimed at addressing safety concerns ahead of any regulation.

Three companies – BASF, Unilever and Smith & Nephew – are joining a range of other organisations including the Royal Society and Insight Investment to draw up a code of practice for companies involved in nanotechnology.

Particles measuring a few hundred nanometres across or less – known as nanoparticles – are being used in an ever-increasing array of applications despite uncertainty about their effects on human health and the environment (ENDS Report 377, p 26 ). A recent survey by research group Corporate Watch found more than 100 products containing nanotech components on sale in the UK including sunscreens, wound dressings, cosmetics and self-cleaning glass.1 Most applications use relatively straightforward nanoparticles like titanium dioxide and silver, but more controversial nanoparticles are relatively common in sports equipment and a couple of face creams (ENDS Report 377, p 26 ).

Even the more pessimistic scenarios foresee a global market for nanotechnology worth around $750 billion by 2015, but potential manufacturers, retailers and investors are worried about the level of uncertainty.

Nanotechnology shows “massive, massive potential,” says Rachel Crossley, director of investor responsibility at Insight Investment, but there could be regulatory and litigation risks. There are also concerns about consumer reactions and whether insurers will cover companies going into the market.

The code will be an attempt to address this uncertainty, establishing what consumers, companies and investors can expect from those developing, manufacturing and selling nanotech-based products.

It arose out of an idea that Ms Crossley took to the Royal Society, which has been involved in the debate about nanotech risks and opportunities from an early stage (ENDS Report 357, pp 30-35 ). Those involved include the Nanotechnology Industries Association (NIA), which represents companies working in the field, the Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network, trade union Amicus, the development NGO Practical Action and consumer organisation Which.

Environmental NGOs, however, are conspicuous by their absence. Ms Crossley says those asked to join either felt they lacked the technical expertise or that it was incompatible with their campaigning stance. Friends of the Earth and WWF were in the former camp, while Greenpeace was in the latter.

The heavy emphasis on climate change among UK NGOs means few are following nanotechnology closely – but those that have looked into it, however fleetingly, have tended to favour a more precautionary approach to regulation, a ramping up of research and mandatory labelling of nanotech products (ENDS Report 378, p 44 ).

At the moment, the UK and other governments are holding out for more scientific evidence before rushing in with regulatory changes. In the UK’s case this approach has been accompanied

by a rather slow start to the necessary research (ENDS Report 387, p 29 ).

Dr Steffi Friedrichs of the NIA said its support for the code does not mean it is averse to regulation. The two instruments are “more than compatible” and the code “would go beyond any foreseeable regulation”.

Despite her concern about the uncertainties facing investors, Ms Crossley was also happy with the current lack of regulation. “It’s only natural – it’s such a nascent field,” she said. “Scientists are only just coming to understand the properties of these particles – how would you have regulations ready when the science still isn’t there?”

This uncertainty about potential risks will also prevent the code of conduct from being particularly prescriptive, she said. Instead, it will probably consist of a series of guiding principles to be adopted by companies’ boards. It will be designed to guide their approach to issues such as safety, transparency and public engagement.

Ms Crossley said she would expect the companies that Insight invests in to sign up to the code if they were planning to move into nanotechnology. “We want to get in on the ground floor and make sure they’re aware of all the issues.”

For chemicals firm BASF – which already uses nanoparticles in some of its pigments, coatings and automotive catalysts – the code is a chance to sway consumer opinion. “We want to help reassure the public that this technology is being pursued responsibly,” said a spokesman for its UK operations. The Royal Society said firms might chart their progress against the code, but BASF could not say whether the whole group would do this or even sign up to the finished code.

The proposed code is one of a series of voluntary initiatives springing up across the world, suggesting that the UK is not alone in its concern about the lack of controls on the technology. Similar business codes are already under way in Germany and the Netherlands, and the European Commission is consulting on a voluntary code of conduct for nanotechnology research.2The Commission’s code will be adopted by the end of the year. It wants stakeholders to comment on how the code could be followed up and whether any research should be off-limits.

A draft version of the UK code will be released for comment in September. The final version is due next February.