Full Steam Ahead! … & Hit The Brakes

By David Funkhouser

New Haven Independent (originally posted July 29, 2010)

You may already be carrying quantum dots, carbon nanotubes and nano-silver around in your pocket: They’re all around us, part of a new industrial revolution that feeds a market for products like cell phones and bug-repellent clothing that could reach $2.6 trillion worldwide by 2015.

The federal government is trying to drive this runaway train with one hand on the throttle and another on the brakes. One agency is calling for a greater push to get nano-based products to market, while another says the government needs to put more emphasis on developing health and environmental standards.

A new General Accounting Office study laments the lack of information about the properties of nanomaterials and their potential risks and toxicity to the environment and human health. The report urges the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to move ahead with plans to gather information about how nanomaterials are being used in manufacturing, and to treat nanomaterials as essentially new chemicals that would require more extensive analysis than materials already in use.

Nanomaterials — substances made from particles measured in billionths of a meter, at which scale they assume new properties — are already found in hundreds of industrial and consumer products, from automobiles to clothing and cosmetics. Such tiny particles show up naturally in the smoke from forest fires, sea spray or volcanic ash. And they occur a byproducts of human activities, such as in exhaust fumes. The GAO report focused specifically on manufactured nanomaterials.

From the GAO report: possible uses for nanotechnology in a juice bottle.

The GAO report, prepared for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, says agencies lack the necessary tools and standards to measure the effects of nanomaterials.

As a result, the report says, the EPA faces a huge problem in trying to assess the environmental impact of nanomaterials released into the air, water and waste stream.

In a letter to the White House, a coalition of state environmental officials asked the federal government to spend as much on risk assessment as it has on commercial development.

But that seems unlikely: The National Nanotechnology Initiative, a multi-agency effort begun in 2001, has already pumped $12 billion into commercial nanotechnology research. And a White House science panel has called for doubling the effort to help manufacturers get new products to market. Meanwhile, the panel proposes spending $117 million in the next year to study environmental and health safety issues.

Nano-enhanced products are typically made from materials already in use — carbon or silver, for instance. At the nano-scale, such materials can exhibit physical properties quite different from the same materials on a conventional scale. For instance, breaking materials down to that tiny size exponentially increases the surface area available for chemical reactions. It also creates particles small enough to penetrate cell walls.

If you’re trying to deliver a treatment drug into specific cancer cells, this can be a very good thing. But not so if your goal is to keep a certain chemical out of the food chain.

That’s why the GAO is urging the EPA to treat nanoscale materials as new. That would kick in a set of rules requiring industries to start reporting on how they use and dispose of nanomaterials, and in some cases on their toxicity.

The Environmental Coalition of States, the group that wants more funding for risk assessment, says in a report on emerging contaminants that “federal policies need to reverse the prevailing assumption that all chemicals are safe unless proven otherwise.”

“My members are men and women who are protecting the environment and cleaning up the messes made in many cases decades ago [from chemical contamination],” says Steve Brown, the coalition’s executive director. “Understandably they don’t want to see that happen again.”

Meanwhile, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, in assessing the progress of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, is urging the government to put more emphasis on pushing technologies to market.

That report recommends doubling the amount invested in nanomanufacturing over the next five years, while holding steady on the research side. It says agencies like the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health “should include a greater emphasis on manufacturing and commercialization while maintaining or expanding the level of basic research funding in nanotechnology.”

The report also calls for a “substantial” increase in funding for research into the health and environmental safety of nanomaterials — to about $117 million. That will include, for the first time, nanotech research money for the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

“By creating jobs, stimulating economic growth, and providing solutions to some of the toughest challenges facing humankind, nanotechnology has great potential to change the world for the better,” the science panel wrote in its March report. “Yet realizing this potential may be thwarted if the safety of new materials and products arising from nanotechnology is not addressed up front.

“In the absence of sound science on the safe use of nanomaterials and of technologies and products containing them, the chance of unintentionally harming people and the environment increases. At the same time, uncertainty and speculation about potential risks threaten to undermine consumer and business confidence.”

Meanwhile, the European Union has moved a step or two ahead on that front. The European Parliament on July 7 passed a measure to block the use of nano-scale ingredients in foods until they can be proved safe. The measure would require food with nano-scale ingredients to be treated as new products, subject to safety testing, and labeling of nano-ingredients on food packaging.

(For more on health and safety issues involving nanotechnology, click here.)

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