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States Struggle to Deal With Nanotech Health Concerns

July 1, 2008

MILWAUKEE, Wis. _ The science of the very small could pose some very big problems for state and local agencies, according to a new report by Wisconsin researchers.

Data gaps in our understanding of the burgeoning field of nanotechnology are forcing unprepared state and local governments to bear the brunt of regulating the new technology’s potentially hazardous risks, the authors conclude.

Nanotechnology, in which matter is engineered at the scale of atoms and molecules, creates products with fundamentally different properties than larger forms of the same materials. This makes nano-sized materials useful for many applications, such as treating cancer, cleaning up pollution and building faster computers.

Some scientists warn, though, that many nano-materials might be toxic to organisms and the environment.

In May, for example, researchers in Scotland reported that some microscopic carbon fibers, known as carbon nano-tubes, trigger the same kind of cancer-causing cellular damage in mice as asbestos does.

Currently, more than 600 consumer products on the world market are using nanotechnologies in some way, ranging from cosmetics and curling irons to socks and plush toys.

A growing nanotechnology trade is also putting more nano-materials into industrial production. Byproducts of the manufacturing process often enter landfills and wastewater streams, and consumer goods are routinely discarded as trash. What effect this has on public health and the environment, however, is largely unknown.

The new report makes clear that “in the absence of clear guidelines from Washington, the states are being left to fill in the gaps,” said Andrew Maynard, the chief science adviser for emerging nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, who was not involved in the research.

“Most of the discussion so far has been at the federal level,” said Maria Powell, an environmental scientist at the University of Madison-Wisconsin’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center, who led the study. “But what hasn’t been discussed is the fact that federal regulations charge a lot of key statutes to the states. So, we should really be looking at what’s happening at the state level … and overall, the states aren’t really prepared.”

One Wisconsin company using nano-sized particles is Platteville-based Graphene Solutions, which earlier in June won the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest for its patent-pending technology to create layers of carbon one atom thick for use in electronics, optical tools and other materials.

The problem is that current regulations lack the capacity to monitor and control the quantity and risks of nano-materials because of a number of “Catch-22s” and “chicken-and-egg scenarios,” Powell said. For instance, the government says it needs risk assessments to set monitoring standards _ information it cannot gather because of the lack of active monitoring.

This means that key regulations set up to protect the environment, including the Toxic Substance Control Act and the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, are effectively powerless when it comes to nanotechnologies, the researchers report online last month in the journal Environmental Management. Without adequate knowledge of nanotechnology’s risks or even where nano-materials are being produced, federal regulations are rarely applied, and ill-equipped state and local environmental and public health agencies are being left to pick up the pieces.

“There’s next to no information about what’s actually out there,” Powell said. “If you can’t say how much or where it is, you’re pretty stuck.”

“Right now, we don’t have the source information to start the chain of events to put monitoring in place,” said Martin Griffin, the science policy coordinator at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, who co-authored the report.

In 2006, Griffin formed a multi-agency working group to address the DNR’s preparedness for emergent nano-related risk issues. In many cases, the DNR’s mandates are unclear about dealing with nanotechnologies, the group found. But at least “we have a framework spelled out for how we would internalize information about nano-materials,” Griffin said. Wisconsin is currently the only state to have a nanotechnology working group.

One of the biggest challenges facing the DNR, Griffin said, is that there are no systematic records of where nano-materials are being handled or manufactured. “We don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “There’s no data.”

Even so, Griffin thinks it’s better to be proactive than to sit and wait for problems to arise. “In spite of the (data) gaps and lack of information, there are still things we can do now,” he said. “We just can’t wait. We need to have a framework that allows for flexibility.”

In December, state Rep. Terese Berceau, a Democrat, wrote an open letter to state environment, health and agriculture agencies to initiate an effort to create a registry of companies producing nano-materials in Wisconsin.

“I hope that one thing that will come out of this work is us learning how much (nanotechnology production) is going on out there,” Berceau said. “That’s one thing we really need to get a handle on.”

“Action has to be taken somewhere,” Maynard said, “and clearly in Wisconsin they see they’ve got to do something if they’re going to create an environment that’s not only going to reduce uncertainties for business but also protect people’s health.”

Sean Murdock, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, a Chicago-based trade group representing nanotech companies, said a statewide registry would be nearly impossible to implement because researchers and policy-makers don’t have a clear understanding of what defines natural, engineered or hazardous nano-materials. “You’re trying to apply something across the board for all nano-materials,” he said, “and that doesn’t make sense.”

What’s more, said Murdock, “there’s nothing to suggest that nano-materials are inherently more dangerous than macro-materials. I don’t believe there’s a qualitatively new or greater risk with nano-materials than with other materials we’ve used before.”

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council in Madison, warned that imposing regulations could hurt state business.

“It could put us at a competitive disadvantage just as we’re really trying to foster a nanotechnology industry in Wisconsin,” he said. “If you’re a company that has to do reporting above and beyond what you have to do for the feds _ guess what? You might look for a different state.”

Berceau, however, sees a registry as a preventive measure.

“I don’t think we want to hamper any research or production that’s going on,” she said, “but we do want to know who’s working on it for just-in-case scenarios.”

A registry could also benefit businesses by adding protection from potential lawsuits or public backlashes, she said.

To date, only a handful of municipalities have begun efforts to regulate nanotechnologies. Berkeley, Calif., has reporting guidelines for manufactured nano-particles, and Cambridge, Mass., is deliberating a similar policy. Wisconsin is the only state actively considering statewide regulations.

“I agree that the states are going to be bearing a large part of the burden,” said Terry Davies, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a Washington-based energy and environmental think tank. But he notes that action is coming slowly at the federal level, too.

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed an act to refine the National Nanotechnology Initiative to strengthen its commitment to environmental and safety research.

“I think a lot is changing at the federal level, but there are a lot of problems,” Davies said. “So, there’s no question that there’s a lot of room for states to take initiative, and I think it’s very constructive that Wisconsin has taken the initiative it has.”

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