The Government has backed away from any serious programme to ensure risks arising from the use of nanotechnology are properly regulated.

Having commissioned an independent report that identifies regulatory gaps, the uncomfortable study has been shuffled off to website Siberia.

Last year, Otago University’s Centre for Law and Policy in Emerging Technologies was asked to review existing legislation covering products and processes involving nanomaterials. The final report, which has been with Government since January, was quietly put up in an obscure corner of the science ministry’s website last week.

The essence of the report is that while New Zealand law may provide a suitable framework for managing the risks of nanotechnologies, regulatory action may not be triggered because of the lack of nanosafety data and capabilities required to identify, risk assess, control and monitor nanomaterials.

The net result is that, in practice, regulation of nanomaterials is often uncertain if not absent in regulation for workplace safety, environmental protection and for consumer products such as cosmetics.

This confirms Sustainability Council analysis that few, if any, of the relevant agencies could meaningfully document which nanomaterials are present in the workplace, and barely a handful of products are actively regulated for their nano content.

Although ministers are advised to reassure New Zealanders that Government “is taking a responsible approach to managing nanomaterials” in a briefing obtained by the Sustainability Council under the Official Information Act, officials recognise that the report may suggest otherwise.

In particular, officials acknowledge that the report could be seen to “call into question the effectiveness of the government agencies charged with regulatory protections” and raise doubts as to whether agencies have enough information on nanomaterials “to enable them to be effective regulators”.

The report also suggests that some nanomaterials may currently escape regulatory scrutiny because regulators are not using instruments available to them.

The report also raises questions as to whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is exercising sufficient precaution. An example of this is the EPA’s view that there is not sufficient information to justify a regulatory response to carbon nanotubes – nanoscale forms of carbon that in certain cases are thought to act like asbestos fibres if they enter the lungs.

The report also notes that the sole nano-specific regulation under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO) – the requirement for manufacturers and importers to notify the use of certain nanomaterials in cosmetic products – has been “widely ignored”.

It is generally acknowledged that the safety of most nanomaterials is a great unknown and that it may take years for nanosafety research to provide the information required to risk assess nanoproducts. For this reason, nanoparticles are ranked as the top emerging workplace risk by the EU’s workplace safety agency.

The challenges the technologies pose will not disappear simply because Government chooses to ignore them.

Government’s desire to lowball nanotechnology risks should be of concern to all New Zealanders, including researchers and developers wanting to use nanotechnologies.

As officials warn, a lax regulatory approach could create a greater political problem: it is “likely to adversely affect public attitudes to nanotechnologies more generally. This may discourage use of manufactured nanomaterials and other applications for economic, social and/or environmental benefits”.



1. The report by the Otago University Centre for Law and Emerging Technology Policy, A Review of the Adequacy of New Zealand’s Regulatory Systems to Manage the Possible Impacts of Nanomaterials, is available here.

2. In a briefing to the Minister for Science and Innovation, obtained under the Official Information Act, the science ministry further states:


Some readers of the Review may be concerned about actual or potential gaps in the regulatory system, and will expect to see steps taken to close or reduce these. They may also consider that regulatory agencies will not have enough information on potential risks to enable them to be effective regulators.

This identification of potential gaps is likely to increase attention on and concerns about nanomaterials and nanotechnology in New Zealand. It may also call into question the effectiveness of government agencies charged with regulatory protections.

In the absence of such [nanosafety] guidance there can be concerns that there is poor regulatory governance.

Ministry of Science and Innovation. 2011.Release of review of the New Zealand regulatory environment for manufactured nanomaterials.Briefing to the Minister June 26.