Nanotechnology – Nature of the Beast

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I’m certainly not a rabid environmentalist, but with technological advances do come unintended consequences.

Case in point – the leaps and bounds taking place in nanotechnology development and production.

Amid growing evidence that some of the tiniest materials ever engineered pose potentially big environmental, health and safety risks, momentum is building in Congress, environmental circles and in the industry itself to beef up federal oversight of the new materials, which are already showing up in dozens of consumer products.

But large gaps in scientists’ understanding of the materials are slowing the development of a regulatory scheme. Equally unresolved is who should pay for the additional safety studies that everyone agrees are needed.

(Government) Regulation? *shudder*

At issue are “nanomaterials,” made of intricately engineered particles and fibers as small as 1/80,000th the diameter of a human hair. At that scale the laws of chemistry and physics bend, giving familiar substances novel chemical, electrical and physical properties.

Nanomaterials are already being integrated into a wide range of products, including sports equipment, computers, food wrappings, stain-resistant fabrics and an array of cosmetics and sunscreens — a market expected to exceed $1 trillion a year within a decade. Preliminary studies suggest that most of these products do not pose significant risks in their bulk form or embedded in the kinds of products that so far use them.

But the same cannot be said of the particles themselves, which can pose health risks to workers where they are made and may cause health or environmental problems as discarded products break down in landfills.

Definitely risks that should be further evaluated and minimized.

An estimated 700 types of nanomaterials are being manufactured at about 800 facilities in this country alone, prompting several federal agencies to focus seriously on nano safety. Yet no agency has developed safety rules specific to nanomaterials. And the approach being taken by the Environmental Protection Agency, arguably the furthest along of any regulatory body, is already facing criticism by some as inadequate.

In documents that are now being finalized for public comment, the agency calls for a “stewardship program” that would be voluntary. Manufacturers would be asked to alert officials about nanoproducts they are making and to provide information about environmental or health risks they have uncovered. But they would not be required to make such reports or to do special studies.

Hate to say it, but voluntary “stewardship programs” aren’t going to be effective.

Any ideas out there on a better way to address these risks, while not adversely restricting the trade?