Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.
I just read an interesting column by John DiLoreto, CEO of NanoReg, that appears online at Nanotechnology Now. It's titled "We Should Have Seen It Coming: States Regulating Nanotechnology." It nicely describes the important role states play in advancing environmental policy and regulation – especially when the feds are asleep at the wheel. And it also gives a neat rundown of the various state actions aimed at nanomaterials that are underway.
But, search as I might, I couldn't find a single acknowledgment in Mr. DiLoreto's latest column – or in his earlier related column titled "What Drives the Regulation of Nanomaterials?" – of the role the nanotechnology industry itself played in bringing all of this on itself.
That's quite an omission, in my view, given that the industry's actions (or, more accurately, the lack thereof) played a central role in getting us to where we are (or, more accurately, aren't) today on nanotechnology oversight. That includes driving states to feel they had to step in to fill the federal void.
In the nearly seven years I've followed the issue, the principal stance of the industry, with some exceptions, has been to urge or compel the federal government to "slow-walk" nanotechnology oversight. That includes seeking to block or slow down even modest proposals by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to obtain better information about nanomaterials in or about to enter commerce.
Here are a few examples:
- The industry fought hard for and was instrumental in securing a policy decision by EPA in 2007 that declared nano forms of existing chemicals to be existing rather than new chemicals, thereby removing the only means under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) by which EPA could have reviewed such nanomaterials before they entered commerce and taken any steps needed to protect the public or the environment.
- Despite the recommendation of a multi-stakeholder advisory panel convened by EPA back in 2005 that the agency simultaneously advance both mandatory and voluntary vehicles to maximize development and reporting of information about nanomaterials, the industry helped convince EPA to move forward only with a voluntary reporting program.
- Despite EPA eating up more than two years to launch the voluntary program, and despite EPA's efforts to beat the bushes to get companies to volunteer, the industry delivered only paltry participation in the program. EPA's own analysis found that it had received only limited information on less than one-tenth of the nanomaterials it identified as already in commerce, and even some in industry acknowledged the industry response had been "lukewarm at best".
- EPA was unable to provide public access to most of the information that was volunteered, because of rampant industry claims for protection of the information as confidential. This, despite industry lip-service paid to the need for transparency and stakeholder engagement, and EPA exhortations to the industry that it please, please refrain as much as possible from asserting confidentiality claims.
- As the new leadership at EPA began last year to try to use its limited regulatory authority under TSCA, some in industry have challenged and sought to delay even the most modest steps, such as those that would merely require a company to notify EPA of its intention to manufacture a carbon nanotube in a manner that differs from that previously reviewed and approved.
Indeed, in recent months, as EPA has begun to resuscitate itself and start pursuing nano-specific data call-ins, Significant New Use Rules (SNURs) and test rules, I have been quite amused to see these mere notification and information development instruments be described by the industry – including by Mr. DiLoreto – as the heavy hand of government regulation of nanomaterials. Yet not one of these actions would actually regulate, i.e., place any restriction at all on the production or use of, any nanomaterial.
All of this foot-dragging by industry has real consequences for public acceptance of nanotechnology. Today – 6 years after EDF first wrote to EPA to raise concerns about its oversight of nanomaterials under TSCA – EPA and the public know little more about which nanomaterials are being made, in what quantities, by whom, for what uses and with what associated risks than we did back then. And government is no closer to being able to demonstrate to the public that the products of this industry are safe.
Mr. DiLoreto concludes the earlier of his two columns with this:
"Clearly, the real danger here is an over-stimulated, political regulatory process that results in a reduction in the research and development of nanomaterials and one that provides a chilling effect on the growth of nano-enabled products."
Hardly. The real danger is continuation of a government oversight system that is too antiquated, resource-starved, legally shackled and industry-stymied to provide to the public and the marketplace any assurance of the safety of these new materials as they flood into commerce.
That is why whenever there's a sign of trouble – such as last year's studies showing multiwalled carbon nanotubes can act like asbestos fibers, or last month's field study reported in Scientific American, showing that relatively low concentrations of nanosilver particles in soil suppress plant growth as well as microbial activity – all the same questions about safety and adequacy of oversight pop right back up to the surface.
That in turn leaves the nano industry flying through the air without a safety net, literally and figuratively, between it and the risk of rapid public rejection of this clearly promising set of technologies.
It's high time the industry acknowledge its role in bringing all this about.