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Report Finds Regulation of Nanotech Inadequate

Scientists say that super-small particles and fibers produced through nanotechnology will soon be in everything from cosmetics to computer chips to tennis rackets. But some people worry that nanomaterials may pose new threats to human health and the environment. A report released today argues that existing laws and regulations probably aren't enough to avert potential problems.

The report was written by Terry Davies, an expert on environmental policy who used to work for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Davies has spent more than 30 years helping the government draft environmental regulations, and he notes that they usually only come after some sort of crisis. “If you look back at the history of most of the environmental regulations, they're reactions to adverse events, to disasters, or oil spills.”

Davies hopes it will be different for nanotechnology, a field of research that is rapidly moving out of the lab. Government and industry have invested billions of research dollars in efforts to make extremely small structures, like spheres or tubes, from ordinary materials, like carbon and metal.

These microscopically minuscule materials, smaller than a red blood cell and much thinner than a human hair, could have all kinds of commercial applications in everything from crash resistant cars to stain proof clothing. The National Science Foundation predicts that in the next 10 years, the global market for products made with nanotechnology will reach $1 trillion. One market analysis found that, a decade from now, nearly 10 million manufacturing jobs could involve making products with nanomaterials.

Nanomaterials are interesting because they can often have very different chemical and biological properties than their normal-sized counterparts. But studies suggest that these unusual properties might also mean that nanomaterials could pose unexpected dangers. Nanoparticles are so small that they can sometimes be absorbed through the skin or get inhaled into the lungs. Some studies suggest that the materials can create toxicity or immune reactions, or travel throughout the body and into the brain.

Davies says officials should develop regulations now to identify any potential problems. “The existing system is not well tailored to deal with nanotechnology,” he says. His analysis of existing laws was done for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a nonpartisan research institute for advanced study that was established by Congress.

There's been relatively little money spent on studying the safety of nanomaterials, Davies says, or on research into environmental effects. “We know so little about the hazards, to the extent that there are any, from nanotechnology,” Davies says. “What that means is that you need to have a regulatory system that provides incentives to generate the information.”

So far, no federal agency has put in place any nano-specific regulations. Susan Hazen, of the EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, told NPR in a written statement that the agency believes "its current regulatory authority for chemicals provides a strong framework for ensuring that industrial nanoscale materials are safely manufactured and used."

But the EPA is designing a two-year voluntary program aimed at collecting more safety information from industry. That's according to William Gulledge, chair of the nanotechnology panel at the American Chemistry Council. “My sense is that they will go through this process in the voluntary program before making any decisions regarding the need or possibility of more regulations,” Gulledge says.

Gulledge notes that over the last year, other agencies have started to gather information on things like possible health effects for workers who manufacture small materials. But he says the research is still in early days: “I think it's way too early to say that a new regulatory framework needs to be created for nanomaterials.”

The Wilson Center report, however, argues that this is exactly the right time. Terry Davies would like to see a new law specifically designed to make sure that nanomaterials don't pose an unacceptable risk. He notes that there's always a reluctance to put new legislation in place -- until something bad happens, and the public demands it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.