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Nanotechnology and Its Impact on Consumers

The Issue

The emergence of nanotechnology as one of the key advances of this century promises consumers significant benefits. However, many nanomaterials are so new to commercial use that the requirements for their safe use and management are not known. Consumer confidence in the safety and efficacy of product applications of nanotechnology will be necessary to achieve market acceptance necessary to recoup the costs of development and make nanotechnology-based products successful.

The properties of nano-scale materials bring certain risks.These tiny materials can be more chemically reactive and exhibit very different electrical, physical, optical and magnetic properties than their larger counterparts. In addition, nanomaterial may be more toxic and has the potential to disperse readily through the body, air, water and soil. The release of nanomaterials into the environment could occur during manufacture, use, disposal, recycling or necessitated direct release.

Considerable uncertainty exists about the actual risks posed, because information is limited on the potential toxicity of nanomaterials and the actual exposure over the life cycle of the product. Regulatory and oversight policies and practices in Canada are in their early stages. Regulators face many challenges that make it difficult to draft appropriate regulations – lack of scientific data, definitions, test procedures and instrumentation to identify and assess the materials; the number and diversity of products being developed; and the difficulty in keeping up with the rapid development of products.

We particularly note the following for policy-makers when evaluating future regulations:

  • Concerns have arisen about who will control the development of the technology and who will benefit from it, how it will affect an individual’s privacy, and how it will be used to enhance human capabilities.
  • Public opinion research has found that consumers want more disclosure of what products contain nanomaterials; they express limited trust in government and industry to manage risk and they want credible, independent oversight; they desire pre-market testing to ensure nanomaterials pose no risk to human health or the environment.


With respect to the use of nanotechnology in consumer products, consumers, governments and industry should work together using three basic precepts:

  • Take a cautious approach.
  • Develop and implement practices to ensure responsible development and commercialization.
  • Inform and educate consumers.
  1. Industry Canada should be the coordinating federal government department, among those other departments dealing with nanotechnology, to provide oversight and coordinate strategies, policies and regulations.
  2. Government must involve consumers in the development of strategies, policies and regulations.
  3. Government and business must employ high standards of terminology, measurement and surveillance to evaluate and regulate the safety of nanomaterials.
  4. Since properties of nanomaterials are distinct, regulators of substances and products must:
    1. classify nanomaterials as new substances or products;
    2. assess the safety of nanomaterials or nano-enhanced products prior to their entry into the Canadian market;
    3. require labelling when nanomaterials are present in consumer products; and
    4. ensure that label information is comprehensible to the average consumer.
  5. Accurate, neutral information about nanotechnology should be widely available to consumers through consumer- oriented media, including an easy-to-use web site.
  6. More research on nanotechnology needs to be done, and in relation to this:
    1. consumers should know the source of funding for such research;
    2. scientists should communicate the results of such research in plain language;
    3. protection of the environment, human health, and occupational and public health should be priorities in funding nanotechnology research; and
    4. funding agencies should also take into account ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social concerns related to nanotechnology development.
  7. Consumers must be informed if nanotechnology is used to develop sensors capable of collecting and distributing information on their medical status and daily activities in a covert manner, and such developments must be regulated so that privacy rights are protected. 


Elizabeth Nielsen, author of recent Consumers Council of Canada report "Nanotechnology and Its Impact on Consumers" appeared recently on CTV. Nanotechnology, which involves the manipulation of matter at the molecular or atomic level, is being used in a growing number of consumer products. Watch the television interview online

Dr. Nielsen also spoke to the Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design (TISED) and Pollution Probe's National Consultation on Nanomaterials and Their Implications on Human Health and the Environment. Her presentation is below:

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