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VeilleNanos - Archive - 2011: Adoption of the definition of nanomaterials by the European Commission

Archive – 2011: Adoption of the definition of nanomaterials by the European Commission

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Adoption of the definition of nanomaterials by the European Commission: first reactions and analyses

By the AVICENN team – Last modification in October 2011

Nanomaterial: the official definition of the European Commission

In a self-congratulatory press release1What is a “nanomaterial”? The European Commission is pioneering a common definitionEuropean Commission press release, 18 Oct. 2011The European Commission announced yesterday that it has finally established “a clear definition (of nanomaterials) to ensure that all appropriate chemical safety rules are applied”.
The nanomaterial is thus defined as:

  • “a natural, accidentally formed or manufactured material
  • containing free particles, in the form of aggregates or in the form of agglomerates,
  • in which at least 50% of the particles in the numerical size distribution have one or more external dimensions between 1 nm and 100 nm”2See the full text here: Commission Recommendation of 18 October 2011 on the definition of nanomaterial, European Commission, Oct. 2011; see the French version published in the OJEU here; see the questions and answers in English here..

The Commission’s text provided for a review of the definition by December 2014, based on initial feedback as well as technical and scientific progress. This definition has been long awaited by the industry, associations and public authorities in the Member States: it should serve as a basis for reference for measurement methods and tests on the toxicity of nanomaterials, and for the drafting and promulgation of European regulations (and if applicable national) specific to nanomaterials It paves the way for a Reach-Nano regulatory framework. As of mid-2019, it still had not been published.

The end of a long negotiation process

In October 2010, the European Commission submitted for public consultation a “Draft Recommendation on the Definition of Nanomaterials”. 200 responses to the consultation were provided by industrialists, academics, civil society associations, citizens, etc. At the end of March 2011, the Commission’s DG Environment had announced the fact that the Commission would not provide a final definition for several months, causing widespread dissatisfactionThe3Commission stumbles over the definition of nanotechnology, Euractiv, 1 April 2011.

The delay in adopting the draft recommendation was caused by differences of opinion among the various stakeholders. Several Commission directorates were involved in the process, each subject to intense lobbying from actors with often incompatible interests: on the one hand, DG Enterprise defending industrial interests, and on the other hand, DG Environment and DG Sanco defending the positions of environmental and consumer health protection associations respectively.

The definition adopted by the Commission is the result of a trade-off between the expectations of some and others.

Initial reactions from civil society and the chemical industry: three main points of controversy

The day after the publication of this new definition, the most active “stakeholders” have already reacted officially: among them, on the civil society side, the European Environmental Bureau (BEE)4Nano definition too narrow says EEB, European Environmental Bureau press release, 18 October 2011 – which brings together over 140 NGOs in 31 countries, Friends of the Earth Australia (FoE Australia)5European Commission caves to industry pressure on nano definition, leaves people and environment at risk, Friends of the Earth Australia, 19 Oct. 2011the Center for International Environmental Law(CIEL)6CIEL welcomes new EU definition of nanomaterials as a necessary step towards assuring safety, CIEL, Oct. 2011the European Consumers’ Organisation(BEUC)7BEUC welcomes adoption of nano-definition but calls for proper regulation of safety risks, BEUC, 19 Oct. 2011 or the European Consumers’ Association on Standardisation(ANEC)8Nanomaterials: a very small step on the long and bumpy road to consumer safety, ANEC, 19 Oct. 2011 On the industrial side, the European Chemical Industry Council(CEFIC)9Practical nanomaterials definition needed to push forward next great innovation breakthroughs, CEFIC, Oct 18. 2011.

I – The 100 nm ceiling

Friends of the Earth Australia, ANEC and BEUC denounce the adoption of the 100 nm threshold as too restrictive: these associations would have liked a higher threshold, which would have allowed to take into account more materials10They are based on the considerations of the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR), which stressed thelack of scientific basis for this 100 nm limit, as well as on the results oftoxicological studies reporting the toxicity of submicron particles exceeding 100 nm. As illustrated by Friends of the Earth, if this definition were applied to the regulation, it would imply that substances composed of 45% of 95nm particles and 55% of 105nm particles would escape the regulation applicable to nanomaterials and would not be subject to possible labeling or health assessment obligations. All this at the expense of consumers and workers exposed to these substances, who will continue to be threatened by a supposed but unassessed risk. In response to the Commission’s consultation on its first definition proposal in 2010, many associations had advocated for a threshold of 300 nm11NGO recommendations for the European definition of nanomaterials, 23 Nov. 2010.
Friends of the Earth Australia points out that European cosmetic brands and US bioactive manufacturers are already modifying their products to exploit the novel optical, chemical and biological properties of nanomaterials larger than 100nm toavoid labelling and safety assessment requirements anticipated for materials with a size between 1 and 100 nm.

II – The 50% threshold

Some organizations – including CIEL and ANEC – applaud the choice of the number of particles, rather than their mass, as the unit of measurement for nanomaterials; conversely, CEFIC fears that the adoption of this definition in regulations will result in a significant increase in costs for companies. The Commission followed here the recommendations of the SCENIHRScientific12Basis for the Definition of the Term nanomaterial, SCENIHR, December 8, 2010, which had been supported byANEC in 2010.

On the other hand, the Commission has significantly increased the proportion of nanosized materials required to qualify a substance as a nanomaterial compared to what was previously planned: the rate retained – 50% of nanosized particles by number in the material considered13Schematically, the particles of which the nanomaterial is composed have one or more dimensions between 1 and 100 nm for at least x% of the distribution of their number according to their size; the debate concerned the x%: 0,15, 1… then 50 – is 50 times higher than the one proposed by DG Environment and supported by civil society (1%), and more than 333 times higher than the one defended by SCENIHR (0.15%14) see note 4 and supported by DG Sanco.
The associations have expressed their surprise, incomprehension and hostility to such a high threshold. CIEL notes, for example, that even the German industry had not asked for so much: it had argued for a rate of about 10% “only”.

However, the Commission has provided that in case of concerns about environmental or health risks, this rate may be lowered below 50% – but not raised – at least by 2014. While this measure is welcomed by CIEL or ClientEarth, Friends of the Earth Australia denounces the fact that the burden of proof of the toxicity of the materials on which this concern is based will then fall on the associations. However, demonstrating that certain nanomaterials can cause damage is already very difficult because of the many scientific uncertainties, the lack of reliable methods and instruments for risk assessment, the variability of nanomaterials and the lack of information on actual exposure to these materials. To do this same demonstration, but on a determined proportion of nanoparticles in a sample, is therefore simply a challenge.

III – The inclusion of agglomerates and aggregates

While CIEL welcomes the inclusion of agglomerates and aggregates in the definition, CEFIC considers that this measure will make any European legislation on nanomaterials too restrictive.

A scientific definition… but mostly political

The apparent technicality of the debates and the ultimately arbitrary nature of the selection of thresholds illustrate the strong political dimension at work behind the decisions taken The European authorities had to make a decision on scientific grounds – thanks to the scientific insight of the experts called upon – but above all to arbitrate between the interests of divergent actors.
The associations regret the imbalance between the forces at work – Industrial lobbies have disproportionate means compared to those of civil society, which does not have the human or financial resources to take as active a part as industry in working groups or lobbying activities with the Commission.
It should be noted thatwithin civil society itself, there are nuances in the assessment of the definition adopted by the European Commission. CIEL, EEB and BEUC have, despite their reservations, welcomed the adoption of this definition, hoping that it will pave the way for real regulation by the European Union in this area. But Friends of the Earth Australia is much more critical: it believes that the text adopted by the Commission is an insult to the democratic process of consultation and involvement of stakeholders, which the institutions claim to have. Supposed to encourage the taking into account of environmental, health, social and ethical considerations, and to guide public action by considerations of general interest rather than by the satisfaction of industrial interests alone, the Commission failed in its duty to give priority to the precautionary principle.

The beginning of a new adventure: implementation problems to be expected

David Azoulay of CIEL reminds us that this definition is not an end in itself, but a necessary tool for regulating the manufacture and use of nanomaterials.
From now on, the European institutions (and the Member States if they so wish) will have a common definition to which they can refer for their possible regulations. And scientists will also be able to align the terminology of their risk assessment and management methods.
With some exceptions (notably that of Andrew Maynard15Don’t define nanomaterials, Nature, 475, 31, July 7, 2011, and Define nanomaterials for regulatory purposes? EU JRC says yes,, Sept. 6. 2011 ), this definition was seen by many as a prerequisite for any regulatory or risk assessment approach. Vito Buonsante, a lawyer for ClientEarth, emphasizes16Industry, NGOs comment on EU Commission’s nanomaterial definition, Chemical Watch, 18 Oct. 2011 and that there is no longer any reason why specific data on the risks of nanomaterials should not be documented in REACH as separate substances; manufacturers and importers no longer have an excuse not to register them and the task of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) will be facilitated. This definition should therefore help to move things forward.
The fact remains that many pitfalls await the authorities in charge of implementing the regulations that will be based on this definition – particularly those posed by thresholds, the inclusion in the definition of aggregates and agglomerates and nanomaterials of natural origin (and not only those that are manufactured), or the reliability of measurement methods17EC adopts cross-cutting definition of nanomaterials to be used for all regulatory purposes,, Oct 18. 2011.
Since 2014, the definition of nanomaterials has been under review, with work and negotiations continuing…

The next important meetings on the European agenda

On October 28, 2011 was held the meeting of CARACAL, the competent authorities for the implementation of REACH and the CLP regulation on classification, labeling and packaging of chemical substances and mixtures. The application of REACH to nanomaterials will be on the agenda.
The issue should have been further explored a month later, on November 22 and 23, at the meeting of the CARACAL sub-group specifically dedicated to nanomaterials, the CASG Nano (for Competent Authorities Sub-Group on Nanomaterials).

The French suspense: what definition for R-Nano?

In the case of France, it is not clear at this time whether the decree on the annual declaration of nanoparticulate substances will be based on the European Commission’s new definition. The French government may try to maintain a definition that allows for more nanomaterials to be included in its regulations than the definition adopted by the Commission. All of civil society’s hopes are therefore focused on the current French decision, which will be decisive for the future: if the definition chosen is broader than that of the Commission and therefore more in line with the precautionary principle, it could serve as an example and be followed in other countries.

The next nano meetings

NanoSafe conference 2023 (CEA, Grenoble)
  • 8th International Conference on Health Issues for a Responsible Approach to Nanomaterials
  • From June 5 to 9, 2023
  • Organizer: French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission(CEA)
  • Website:…
How the world deals with Materials on the Nanoscale – Responsible Use and Challenges (OECD-BMUV, Berlin)
  • International Conference from June 22 to 23, 2023
  • Organizers: OECD, German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection(BMUV)
  • Website: https: //…
São Paulo School of Advanced Science on Nanotechnology, Agriculture & Environment (SPSAS NanoAgri&Enviro, São Paulo)
São Paulo
  • From July 3 to 15, 2023 in São Paulo
  • Organizer: FABESP
  • Application from November 18 to February 05. Registration fees and travel expenses are covered.
  • Speakers: see the complete program here.

File initially created in October 2011

Notes & références

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