Consumers call for comprehensible labelling and accompanying risk research on "nano"products
The main demands formulated in the vote by the 16 consumers who attended the BfR consumer conference on nanotechnology were for comprehensible labelling, clear definitions, terms and standards as well as far more research into the potential risks before nanotechnology is used to a greater degree in consumer products. The group presented its vote on 20 November 2006 to representatives of the Bundestag (German parliament), the federal government, associations and the Governing Body of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. "With the consumer conference on nanotechnology we are the first public agency in Germany to try out this risk communication tool", said BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel in his closing speech at the conference. "Our experience shows that an event of this kind is well suited to involving consumers in the scientific debate about the assessment of new technologies. When making their judgement, consumers took a very differentiated look at the potential risks and benefits of nanotechnology based on knowledge of the latest research and the existing uncertainty." They were especially critical of the use of nanomaterials in foods.
The Consumer Conference on Nanotechnology was launched as a pilot project by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) and was jointly staged with the Independent Institute for Environmental Concerns (UfU) and the Institute for Ecological Economic Research (IÖW). It draws on the model of the Danish consensus conference and is being tested by BfR as one possible tool of extended risk communication. The backdrop to BfR’s risk communication activities is the dialogue between risk assessors, risk managers and various interest groups from science, politics, industry, associations, public agencies and the public at large. The staging of a consumer conference puts BfR’s statutory remit on risk communication into practice by directly involving groups of consumers in the discussions about the risks and benefits prior to the introduction of a broadly based consumer application of this technology. This is the first time that a public agency in Germany has used this tool.
16 people of various ages and occupations were extracted from a cohort of 6,000 randomly selected individuals on the basis of sociodemographic criteria for the Consumer Conference on Nanotechnology. This group took a comprehensive look at this subject at two preparatory weekends, prepared questions on various consumer aspects of this technology and selected experts from science, associations, public agencies and industry to answer them.
The closing event of the “BfR Consumer Conference on Nanotechnology” was held in Berlin from 18 to 20 November 2006. At a public hearing the invited experts responded to the consumer group’s questions on the use of nanotechnology in foods, cosmetics and textiles. An, at times, heated debate was conducted on the question of the labelling of nanoproducts. The participants called for clear labelling in order to be able to decide for themselves whether they wanted to purchase products manufactured using nanotechnology or not. Other important discussion items were the development of suitable measurement methods to detect nanoparticles, disposal of nanoproducts and the provision of funds to research possible risks.
In private deliberations the group then prepared its vote on nanotechnology. It was presented to the public on 20 November 2006 and handed over to representatives of public agencies, politics and associations. It names foods as the most sensitive area for the use of nanomaterials. Consumers felt that the promised advantages to be derived from using nanotechnology like changes to the flow properties of ketchup or the trickling properties of products were non-essential given the potential risks. Regarding the use of nanotechnology in cosmetics and textiles the consumers felt that the already foreseeable benefits clearly outweighed potential risks. For instance, nanoparticles in sunscreen could provide better UV protection and help to counter the increase in skin cancer. The consumers were also of the opinion that nanotechnology could be expected to offer more quality of life in work, sports and daily clothing.
Nanotechnology is of importance for the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in conjunction with consumer health protection as new materials manufactured on this basis are increasingly being used in consumer products like cosmetics, clothing textiles, household products as well as in foods and food supplements in future, too. The recording of a fact-based opinion aims to identify the requirements consumers expect nanotechnology to meet. The consumer vote is, therefore, an important source of information for both producers and decision-makers from politics and consumer health protection authorities when dealing with nanotechnology and its products.