Many readers of MassTortDefense know that nanotechnology refers to a new field of technology that seeks to manipulate and control products, really matter, on the atomic and molecular scale, typically 100 nanometers or smaller. To give some sense of scale, one nanometer is one billionth, or 10-9 of a meter. A nanometer compared to a meter is the roughly the same ratio as that of a baseball to the size of the Earth. Or another analogy, a nanometer is the length a man’s whiskers grow in the time it takes him to lift his razor to his face to shave.

First, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently called for public comments on its draft scientific opinion document assessing the potential risks of engineered nanomaterials used in food and feed. EFSA opinions provide guidance for the European Commission and European Union member state food safety organizations.

EFSA has noted that complete information about engineered nanomaterials in food is lacking, leading to uncertainties in risk assessment. In particular, the agency said knowledge is limited about how engineered nanomaterials in food should be characterized, detected, and measured. It also said more information is needed on the toxicological and environmental impacts of using such nanomaterials.

The comment period on the draft opinion is open until Dec. 1, after which the scientific opinion will be revised and finalized, taking the comments into account.

Second, back in the US, the activist group Consumers Union released new product tests this week, claiming to show that some sunscreens claiming not to contain nanoparticles appeared to contain them.

The group is concerned because nano-size particles are known in some applications to have different properties than the conventional versions of these chemicals. Sunscreen manufacturers use nano-size particles of these ingredients for several reason, including because they help make the products clear rather than opaque, something consumers prefer. The European Union has required manufacturers to submit data on sunscreens containing nanoparticles.

Third, the EPA has issued an announcement intended to give notice of the potential application of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) requirements to carbon nanotubes (CNTs). Carbon nanotubes are generally made from sheets of graphite no thicker than an atom—about a nanometer, or one billionth of a meter wide—and formed into cylinders, with the diameter varying from a few nanometers up to tens of nanometers. They are excellent conductors of electricity. Carbon nanotubes can also be used to reinforce polymers to create very strong plastics. Carbon nanotubes show promise as building blocks for computer chips that are smaller and faster than those made of silicon. Economists predict that the market for carbon nanotubes will grow to more than $1 billion by 2014.

EPA generally considers CNTs to be chemical substances distinct from graphite or other allotropes of carbon already listed on the TSCA Inventory. Many CNTs may therefore be new chemicals under TSCA. If a particular CNT is not on the TSCA Inventory, anyone who intends to manufacture or import that CNT is required to submit a premanufacture notice (PMN) at least 90 days before commencing manufacture. MassTortDefense has posted about carbon nanotubes before.

Apparently, inquiries to the Agency and questions in public forums indicated a lack of clarity on this issue. Some of the misunderstanding may be the result of an EPA communication to a chemical manufacturer a number of years ago pertaining to a substance the Agency now considers to be a carbon nanotube material. EPA understands that the earlier communication may have been misunderstood by some companies as a possible indication that all CNTs may be equivalent to other allotropes of carbon already on the TSCA Inventory. Hence the clarification.