The German survey confirms calls by scientists and others across the world for more regulatory oversightof nanotechnology to calm public fears about the possible risks posed by the emerging science. Thetechnology, which deals with controlling matter at near-atomic scales to produce unique or enhancedmaterials, products and devices, has been touted as the next revolution in many industries,including cosmetics and packaging.
Yet the public's concerns have been raised that nanostructured materials could potentiallylead to unforeseen health or environmental hazards.In the food area fears arise over theunknown consequences of digesting nano-scale particles designed to behave in specific way in thebody.
The in-depth survey in Germany was conducted on 16 selected consumers of the 6,000 in attendanceat the BfR's Consumer Conference on Nanotechnology, held from 18-20 November. The 16 took acomprehensive look at the subject over two preparatory weekends before the conference. They thenprepared questions on various consumer aspects of this technology and selected experts from science,associations, public agencies and industry to answer them.
The group then presented its views on 20 November 2006 to representatives of Germany'sparliament, the Bundestag, the federal government, associations and BfR's governing body.
"With the consumer conference on nanotechnology we are the first public agency in Germany to try out this risk communicationtool," said BfR president professor Andreas Hensel. "Our experience shows that an event of this kind is well suited to involving consumers in the scientificdebate about the assessment of new technologies. When making their judgement, consumers took a very differentiated look atthe potential risks and benefits of nanotechnology based on knowledge of the latest research and the existing uncertainty."
The BfR's three-day conference debated the use of nanotechnology in foods, cosmeticsand textiles. The participants called for clear labelling in order to be able to decide forthemselves whether they wanted to purchase products manufactured using nanotechnology or not, theBfR reported.
"Other important discussion items were the development of suitablemeasurement methods to detect nanoparticles, disposal of nanoproducts and the provision of funds toresearch possible risks," stated the BfR.
The group named foods as the most sensitive area for the use of nanomaterials.
"Consumers felt that the promised advantages to be derived from usingnanotechnology like changes to the flow properties of ketchup or the trickling properties ofproducts were non-essential given the potential risks," the BfR stated. "Regardingthe use of nanotechnology in cosmetics and textiles the consumers felt that the already foreseeablebenefits clearly outweighed potential risks. For instance, nanoparticles in sunscreen could providebetter UV protection and help to counter the increase in skin cancer. The consumers were also of theopinion that nanotechnology could be expected to offer more quality of life in work, sports anddaily clothing."
The BfR said the conference and the survey provides recording of a fact-basedopinion aims to identify the requirements consumers expect nanotechnology to meet. The consumer voteis, therefore, an important source of information for both producers and decision-makers frompolitics and consumer health protection authorities when dealing with nanotechnology and itsproducts.