Wisconsin Says: ‘Know Nano’

When Wisconsin lawmaker Terese Berceau first learned about nanomaterials a few years ago, she found there were many nano-based products on the market, but little research into their possible health effects. “The horse was already out of the barn,” she said, but she found it hard to get anyone interested. “It is a difficult subject to get people feeling that, ‘Geez, we should do something now.’ ”

Wisconsin Assemblywoman
Terese Berceau

But she worked at it, and her concern has paid off. The Wisconsin legislature just set up a study committee to gather information about nanotechnology and consider the policy implications. Berceau hopes that will lead to a registry, so health and environmental officials can track how the materials are being used, and how manufacturers and researchers are disposing of them.

Wisconsin is one of the first states to undertake this effort. Nano-enhanced consumer, environmental and health products have spawned a red-hot industry. Across the country, the use of nanomaterials—substances manufactured on a tiny scale, measured in billionths of a meter—is largely unmonitored and unregulated. Nanotechnology manipulates matter on a near-atomic scale in order to develop nanomaterials with surprising new properties, such as strength and super-conductivity. The results have ranged from super-strong sunscreen and bicycle frames to life-saving drugs.

“If we’ve learned anything from the BP oil spill [in the Gulf of Mexico], it’s that you should have a plan, that you shouldn’t just hope that nothing bad happens. You should have a plan so you don’t have serious consequences for public or environmental health,” Berceau said.

“We don’t know where and by whom [nanomaterials are] being used,” Berceau said. “We don’t have an inventory. … We don’t know the broader implications if there’s a broad release into water or air.”

For instance, she said, she has heard from first responders worried about the release of nano materials from fire or explosion. Nano-scale particles already exist in nature, and as the result of some human activities, such as combustion. But researchers are in the early stages of trying to figure out how to measure human exposure and impacts from nanoparticles.

She said she expects a registry would start out as voluntary, perhaps with mandatory reporting for materials known to be hazardous.

California’s Environmental Protection Agency has begun collecting data on the use and potential toxicity of some nanomaterials. The federal EPA is asking for similar information from pesticide manufacturers. And Congress is considering a revised law on toxic substances that would put more of the onus on industry and the research community to identify the substances they’re using, and whether or not they’re potentially dangerous.

Since 2007, a special inter-agency committee in Massachusetts has been reaching out to industries, consumers, academic researchers and other government agencies to learn more about the uses and potential hazards of nanotech.

The team’s goals are to find out what’s going on in Massachusetts, and how best to prevent health and environmental problems from cropping up. The group also tries to educate the public about the benefits and risks of nanotech. The committee has sponsored two workshops focused on the safe development of nanotechnology.

California and Massachusetts have consistently ranked one and two among states with nanotech firms and research facilities. New York and Texas round out the top four.

There is no similar governmental effort apparent in Connecticut. The state has had some aborted attempts to pump up nanotech industry and research, but funding has proved scarce in tight times.

“Connecticut is not taking a leadership position on this,” said State Sen. Ed Meyer of Guilford, who co-chairs the legislature’s Environment Committee. “We’re in effect letting New York take the lead.”

The goal in Wisconsin, Berceau says, is to assess the potential risks, and at the same time help manufacturers address those risks and encourage development of nano-based businesses and products.

“Many of us are walking a delicate balance, especially now with the economy—we don’t want to scare away a business,” Berceau said.

Berceau noted Wisconsin is home to several companies and research facilities, such as the University of Wisconsin, that use or study nanoparticles.

Nanomaterials hold great promise in medicine, electronics, energy and structural engineering. They’re already widely in use in circuitry, personal care products, clothing, sports equipment and automobiles. Because of their size, they can be far more bioreactive than larger scale materials, and little is known about their impact once they enter the waste stream.

Berceau said there has been talk in the insurance industry about looking at how to handle liability for exposure to potentially dangerous nanomaterials. Providing that kind of insurance could actually help draw businesses to Wisconsin, she said.

(Originally posted at The New Haven Independent on Aug. 2, 2010.)

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