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Australia Considers Proposal for Nano-Regulatory Reform

Written by John C. Monica, Jr. and Dr. Diana Bowman
December 23, 2009
In November 2009, the Australian Government’s Department of Health and Aging (DHA) published a public discussion paper —“Proposal for Regulatory Reform of Industrial Nanomaterials”—in relation to the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), which provides a national system of notification and assessment of industrial chemicals.  For the purpose of the scheme, “industrial chemicals” include chemical entities found in, for example, many plastics and paints.  And, unlike many jurisdictions, those chemicals found in cosmetic products.  The paper provides concrete recommendations for the regulation of both “new” nanoscale chemical substances and “existing” chemical substances in nanoscale formulations, while thoughtfully considering legitimate  business needs.

Regarding “new” nanoscale chemical substances, the paper notes that—by legal definition—these substances are those which are not already listed on the Australian Inventory of Chemical Substances and as such are subject to existing regulatory requirements.  The paper also notes that several permitting exemptions currently exist for certain uses of chemicals already on the Inventory.  As an initial nano-regulatory step, the paper recommends excluding “new” nanoscale materials not already on the Inventory from regulatory low volume exemptions, “thereby shifting a post-market audit activity to a pre-market assessment (i.e. new nanomaterials to be assessed under permit or certification categories prior to commercialization).”  The suggestion is not unduly punitive, and a similar approach is already in use by the US EPA.

Additionally, the paper recommends modifying the Research and Development exemption for “new” chemical substances to require annual reporting of nanoscale materials produced in quantities exceeding 100 grams per year.  While the paper could benefit from some explanation of why this specific threshold was selected, the idea of providing basic information on nanoscale materials used in sufficient quantities for research and development is not onerous.

The main rationale for these modifications is that the “uncertainty surrounding the hazards, exposure, and risk assessment methodologies . . . means that the determination of ‘no unreasonable risk’ or ‘non-hazardous’, both of which are prerequisites to a range of exemptions, is not expected to be straightforward,” and the accompanying need for a case-by-case approach to the responsible development of nanoscale chemical substances. 

Regarding “existing” nanoscale chemical substances, the paper recommends that the Australian Government consider following up on their somewhat disappointing voluntary data call-ins under the NICNAS scheme (held in 2006 and 2008) with a study on “the feasibility of a mandatory notification and assessment program.”  Such a program would be designed to establish a database of “existing” nanoscale chemicals in use in Australia and increase public confidence in regulatory oversight efforts.  U.S. EPA is also considering a mandatory data call-in for nanoscale materials, while California has already issued a mandatory data call-in for carbon nanotubes and is targeting several additional nanoscale materials.

Australia’s DHA’s recommendations are well-balanced.  Business and commercialization needs are recognized even though human and environmental, health, and safety regulatory needs are given priority.  However, the paper largely ignores the most difficult topic in this space—whether nanoscale versions of “existing” chemicals already on the Australian Inventory of Chemical Substances should be considered “new” chemical substances for regulatory purposes, as suggested by Ludlow, Bowman, and Hodge in their review of Australia’s regulatory framework for nanotechnology,  thus triggering pre-market approval requirements prior to commercialization.  This issue has been argued back and forth in the US, the EU and other jurisdictions for quite some time, and it is unlikely that Australia will be able to avoid similar strong debate.  It is perhaps the biggest issue facing regulators seeking to modify Australia’s industrial chemical legislative framework to fully cover both “new” and “existing” nanoscale materials.

Beyond the substantive regulatory changes noted above, the paper does an excellent job of explaining what “industrial nanomaterials” are, their current regulatory status in Australia, and national and international regulatory activities for nanoscale materials.  Moreover, the paper is written in sharp, clear language.  It provides lots of key questions for stakeholders to consider when thinking about these issues, as well as surveys and questionnaires encouraging feedback and input.  The Australian Government is also sponsoring public consultation activities in most of the country’s larger metropolitan areas to explains the paper to stakeholders first-hand and to solicit additional input.

  1. National Industrial Chemical Notification and Assessment Scheme (Department of Health and Aging, Australian Government). Proposal for Regulatory Reform of Industrial Nanomaterials. Public Discussion Paper. November 2009. Available from NICNAS.
  2. Ludlow K, Bowman DM, and Hodge GA. 2007. A Reveiw of Possible Impacts of Nanotechnology on australia'a Regulatory Framework. Monash Centre for Regulatory Studies, Monash University, Melbourn.

Dr. Bowman is a Senior Research Fellow in the School for Population Health at the University of Melbourne and a Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of International and European Law, KU Leuven.  Dr. Bowman is also a co-editor, along with Matthew Hull, of the book “Nanotechnology Environmental Health and Safety: Risks, Regulation and Management,” (Elsevier, 2010).

Last updated: March 15, 2012

DOI: 10.4053/fe340-091223

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Tags: EHS + Regulation, Policy and Regulation

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