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Posted: February 29, 2008

UK panel revealed consumer understanding of nanotechnology

(Nanowerk News) In November 2007, Which?, the UK consumer advocat group, commissioned a short survey among the general public which highlighted low levels of awareness for nanotechnologies and how they are being used (2091 adults were interviewed):
  • Six in ten adults had not heard of the term ‘nanotechnology’ (61%).
  • Among those aware of the term, around two thirds (64%) believed nanotechnologies were already being used to develop consumer products of some kind; just under one in twenty did not think they were being used to develop any (4%), but a third simply did not know (33%).
  • Following on from this, Which? undertook an additional research project with consumers - the Citizens’ Panel on Nanotechnologies.
    The primary objectives of the Citizens’ Panel were to explore consumer perceptions and understanding of nanotechnologies and to investigate the implications of nanotechnologies for all consumers - from the consumers’ point of view. The panel focused in particular on the areas of food, cosmetics, medicines/health and consumer products.
    Over three days, the panellists learnt about nanotechnologies and their applications from a number of expert witnesses. Throughout the process, panellists were able to ask questions of the witnesses and were given issues to discuss and debate with each other. They were asked to come up with both ‘shared solutions’ and to give their individual responses.
    Initial Reactions
    Initially there was very little awareness of nanotechnologies among the panellists, but by the third day they were comfortable discussing the topic and their possible applications and risks.
    Panellists were generally excited about the potential that nanotechnologies offer and were keen to move ahead with developing them. However, they also recognised the need to balance this with the potential risks.
    Panellists identified many opportunities for nanotechnologies. They appreciated the range of possible applications and certain specific applications, particularly for health and medicine. The potential to increase consumer choice and to help the environment were also highlighted, along with the opportunity to ‘start again’ by designing new materials with more useful properties. Other opportunities they highlighted were potential economic developments for the UK (and the jobs this might create) and the potential to help developing countries (with food or cheaper energy).
    Key issues
    During the three days of discussion and debate various issues arose:
  • Safety - potential safety issues were a key concern (e.g. the toxicity of nanoparticles). Of particular concern was the fact that there are already products on the market where scientists are uncertain of the safety of the nanomaterials involved, specifically if these involve ‘free’ nanoparticles.
  • Lack of regulation - panellists were concerned that industry is able to make positive marketing claims with regards to the new properties of nanomaterials, while denying that they may have any undesirable new properties. There was consensus that industry should not be allowed to self-regulate, and concern that no regulations specifically to deal with issues raised by nanotechnologies appear to exist currently. It was also agreed that any regulations need to be applied internationally.
  • Information - there were concerns that there are currently no requirements to inform consumers about products using nanotechnologies - but panellists also acknowledged that this information would not be useful unless the public were given broader information on the subject at the same time. Panellists were also more concerned for the need for information about ‘free’ nanoparticles than fixed (e.g. food and cosmetics rather than phones and cameras).
  • Accessibility - questions were raised over whether nanotechnologies would be accessible to all, or just to the rich or richer countries.
  • Environment - the possible environmental impacts were raised - would nanoparticles enter the environment and, if so, would they persist longer?
  • Action points
    From a consumer perspective, panellists believed the following areas should be tackled:
  • Public safety: the panellists saw the potential for nanotechnologies and while they did not want to call for a halt to their development they were keen that they be developed with the highest regard for public safety.
  • Regulation: safety standards and regulations applicable to nanotechnologies should be addressed urgently. Panellists suggested greater Government involvement in their control as well as an independent body or bodies - either to regulate generally or in specific areas. They also stressed the need for independent safety assessments, and called for regulations to be applied internationally to protect consumers in a globalised market.
  • Public information: consumers should be informed about nanotechnologies - both in terms of whether they have been used in product development and more widely about the issues concerning nanotechnologies - to help them decode any information they may be given on product labels. Once again, panellists were particularly concerned that consumers be informed about ‘free’ nanoparticles.
  • Source: Which?
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