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More proactive communication on nanotechnology!

23/2006, 22.08.2006

BfR involves experts and consumers in a dialogue about the opportunities and risks of nanotechnology

Timely communication about the possible use and potential risks of nanotechnologies in foods and consumer products will be of decisive importance when it comes to society’s acceptance of nanotechnology. The key question is question whether and, if so, on what scale consumers come into contact with nanomaterials and the impact of these materials on the organism. BfR has just launched two projects on this very subject. First of all, the Institute intends to ask experts about the use and potential risks of nanomaterials. Then, a consumer conference will seek to determine how people see nanotechnology and what hopes and fears are engendered by this technology. "Both projects will help to identify scientifically determined and emotionally perceived risks early on and to carry them over to the communication process", says BfR President, Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel.

The expert survey of the “Risks of nanotechnological applications in foods, cosmetics and consumer goods” has already begun. It is based on the Delphi method, a multi-phase, qualitative forecasting method. A panel of experts is systematically interviewed about readily available knowledge.  About 100 experts from research, industry, public agencies, consumer associations and other non-governmental organisations participate in the survey. In two Delphi rounds they express their opinions on the current and future applications of nanotechnology and on the potential opportunities and risks for consumers. The first Delphi round was already held in July. The second Delphi round where experts will be given an opportunity to react to the results of the first round is to follow in the autumn. At two expert workshops the results will then be discussed and any risk potentials identified classified by scale in a “risk barometer”.

The objective is to identify already used or potentially usable nanomaterials, assign them to concrete applications and then draw conclusions on consumer exposure. Based on the available knowledge about exposure and hazard potential, the applications will then be classified according to the level of probable risk and risk reduction strategies developed. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment conducts the Delphi survey together with the Interdisciplinary Research Unit on Risk Governance and Sustainable Technology Development (ZIRN) at Stuttgart University.

Towards the end of the year BfR will then stage a “Consumer Conference on Perception of Nanotechnology”. Conferences of this kind are one way of directly involving consumers in public and political debate about consumer protection issues. The objective of the conference is to identify the opportunities and risks linked to the use of nanotechnology from the consumers’ perspective.

To this end, a group of 18 representative consumers will take an in-depth look at the subject of nanotechnology during three weekends in Berlin. After a public hearing of experts in this area in November the group will submit a final report on the opportunities and risks of nanotechnology from the consumer angle. This consumer report will then be passed on to the main stakeholders in political circles, public agencies, science, industry and non-governmental organisations. In this way, any risks perceived by consumers are to be integrated into the risk communication process.

The Consumer Conference will be jointly staged with the Independent Institute for Environmental Concerns (UfU, Berlin) and the Institute for Ecological Economic Research (IÖW, Berlin). BfR will inform the general public of the results.

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