Voluntary Effort To Collect Nanotech Info Flounders

August 6, 2008
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Boosted by major governmental and private sector funding, the multibillion-dollar nanotechnology industry is surging. Advocates anticipate many benefits from nanotechnology, and already there are at least 610 products on the shelves that contain some type of nanomaterials, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, which is supported by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trust. That's nearly triple the number of products tallied just two years ago.

The products include cosmetics, sunscreens, paints, clothing, foods, sports equipment, and electronics, computer, appliance, and automotive components. Products containing nanomaterials may comprise about 15% of all manufactured goods in the global market as soon as 2014, according to Lux Research.

But introduction of these products into the marketplace, and concurrent exposures of people and the environment to these nanomaterials, is far ahead of research on their health and environmental hazards. Among the limited studies that have been completed, many indicate the potential for considerable harm. As just one example, a recently published study found that nanoparticles are far more likely to pass through the sewage treatment process and into the environment than previously thought.

Government regulation of these products and the companies making them has largely been conducted under the premise that nanomaterials are just small versions of known chemicals and substances, and can be managed under existing regulations. However, many experts say that the tiny size of the nanomaterials endows them with very different chemical and physical properties.

In order to find out a little more about existing nanomaterials, and those under development, on Jan. 28, 2008, the EPA announced its Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program. As one of the program's initial efforts, the agency asked those working with nanomaterials to voluntarily submit their information on materials or products they manufacture, import, process, use, or research. EPA set a deadline of July 28, 2008.

The response has been paltry. Only 13 companies, which make 83 nanomaterials, submitted some type of information. Another 17 said they would submit information in the future. There are at least 322 companies in 20 countries with nanoproducts on the market, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. There likely are far more startup companies that don't yet have products on the market, says Ken Vest, 703-292-4503, a spokesman for the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (an arm of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), which is a coalition of federal organizations involved with nanotechnology).

EPA says on its Web site that it will issue an interim report on the Stewardship program by about January 2009, and a more detailed report by about January 2010. The agency has left open the possibility that it may eventually develop regulations specific to nanomaterials. However, the timing and scope of future steps remain uncertain, Kemery says.

Neither EPA nor NNI is attempting to track the companies, products, or materials. Instead, they defer to sources such as the Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies or the NanoBusiness Alliance. Those groups acknowledge that their inventories are far from complete. Even the definition of nanotechnology and nanomaterials remains elusive.

Meanwhile, as hundreds of nanoproducts pour onto the market, US and international organizations continue to dicker over how to research and manage nanoproducts.

On Feb. 14, 2008, NNI announced its "Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health, and Safety Research." This document is generally considered an improvement over earlier versions, but critics still panned it on numerous grounds.

The US Congress is working on legislation modifying the NNI. Search US Congress on the Internet for HR 5940 and S 3274.

The National Academies' National Research Council is conducting a "Review of the Federal Strategy to Address Environmental, Health, and Safety Research Needs for Engineered Nanoscale Materials." A final report is expected in September or October 2008. More information.

At the local level, Cambridge, MA, is discussing a controversial move to either set up a voluntary disclosure system for everyone working on nanomaterials, or establish formal regulations. The Boston area is one of the US hotspots for nanotech. Berkeley, CA, part of another nanotech epicenter, already regulates nanomaterials.

More Resources

  • EPA: main nanotechnology page (includes references to global efforts to try to get an initial handle on nanotechnology, by organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).
  • NanoBusiness Alliance.
  • The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies has the following:
  • Upcoming reports: approximately Aug. 20, 2008, addressing the shortcomings, and potential regulatory options, for the US Consumer Product Safety Commission; approximately mid-September 2008, addressing dietary supplements, and shortcomings and regulatory and management options, for the US Food and Drug Administration. Contact: Colin Finan, 202-691-4321.
  • For extensive media coverage of issues such as research on health and environmental effects; industry developments; and political discussions, actions or inaction, search for "nanotechnology" and "nanomaterial" in "article text" at Environmental Health News.
  • Numerous nanotech sources and resources are included in TipSheets of March 1, 2006; and May 12, 2004. Many other resources are included in half a dozen other TipSheets that turn up when you search the archives for "nanotechnology."