New Zealand women are being exposed to cosmetic products containing a typeof nanomaterial that has been stripped from the shelves in Europe and Australia.
Products containing nanoparticles called "fullerenes" remain on sale in New Zealand even though the European cosmetics industry has pledged not to use them until more is known about their safety. Three product lines - Perricone MD's Ceramic Eye Smoother and Skin Smoother and Dr Brandt's Lineless Cream - are labelled by the manufacturers as containing fullerenes.
Other major cosmetic companies appear to be using other types of nanomaterials.
The cosmetics are part of a rising tide of consumer products containing nanomaterials that have been put on the New Zealand market without risk assessment by ERMA and often before the information is at hand to allow such analysis.
Nanocosmetics are far from the only product category now under scrutiny. Washing machines that inject nanosilver particles into the tub and, later, into wastewater are among a fast-growing set of consumer products that use nanosilver for its biocidal properties.
Samsung's use of nanosilver in its SilverCare range has been contentious in Europe and the US. Nonetheless, washing machines and other nanosilver products are being sold in New Zealand without being subject to any specific rules. This is despite ordinary silver being classed as a hazardous substance and questions about how much cleaner it makes a wash. Fisher and Paykel decided against using nanosilver in its laundry appliances because it did not believe this offered any benefits and the company was concerned about the effects of routine use of silver on the environment.
Interest in nanotechnologies is growing because the novel properties of nanomaterials are seen as offering technological and commercial advantage. However commercialisation of nanoproducts is often occurring well before their risks have been understood.
Four years ago, the Ministry for Research, Science and Technology warned that there was "little room for complacency" and that the drive to commercialise nanotechnologies should not overwhelm good governance. Lack of action since then means New Zealand must now play catch-up to regulate nanotechnologies, with much more complex, and troubling applications looming on the horizon.
The degree to which nanotech regulation has gone into snooze mode is underscored by the failure of one of the very few regulations on nanotech products. It specifies that fullerenes and other nanomaterials are not to be used in cosmetics without manufacturers or importers notifying ERMA. Yet they sit on local shelves and, as of the end May this year, the regulator had received no notifications since introducing this scant reporting duty four years ago. Moreover, Government would be hard-pressed to tell New Zealanders how many nanotech products of any kind are available in New Zealand, as there is no official register and no labelling requirements.
This year, Government commissioned a study to see whether existing laws are triggered by nanoscale materials and products. This is welcome, but the review is restricted to the rather narrow question of whether regulation is triggered by nanomaterials, when the challenges that nanotechnologies pose require much broader enquiry.
Nanotechnologies are predicted to offer technological advantage in many areas. However, waving nanotech products through with little or no effective regulation is not the way to secure net benefits for society.
Assuming no surprises from exploiting novel technologies is poor environmental and public health policy and has not served New Zealand well in the past. New Zealand still carries the burden of inadequate management of earlier wonder chemicals and products, among them DDT and asbestos. Avoiding repeating these lessons involves recognising early signs now and not allowing the commercialisation and widespread circulation of nanotech products to get ahead of our understanding of their potential for harm.
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