INSIGHT: New federal nanomaterials mandate likely

11 December 2008 17:19  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

US scientist holds vial of carbon nanotubesWASHINGTON (ICIS news)--A new federal mandate for broad environmental controls over nanotechnology research and development (R&D) is virtually certain in the new year, according to a science leader in the US House.

This is one area of federal regulation that the chemicals industry eagerly supports.

Representative Bart Gordon (Democrat-Tennessee), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, called attention this week to a new National Research Council (NRC) report on current nanotech research and development (R&D) that found “serious weaknesses” in federal coordination of potential health and environmental risks posed by nanomaterials.

“The National Research Council’s report raises concerns about the adequacy of the environmental, health and safety research component of the multi-agency National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI),” Gordon said.

NNI has been criticised by many in the US chemicals industry for moving too slowly, allowing nanotech commercial development to race ahead in some instances but also inhibiting it in other ways.

The NNI is by its nature unwieldy and tortoise-like in its deliberations and movements, chiefly because it is essentially a committee made up of representatives from the 26 different federal agencies that have regulatory or some other purview over nanomaterials research and development.

The lethargic performance of NNI inhibits nanotech development because without a clear federal plan for how government agencies will monitor and regulate the still unknown risks in nanotech R&D and commercialization, many in academia, business and investment communities are reluctant to press forward with their work.

Few are willing to commit millions of dollars to a nanotech research project or a commercialisation plan for fear that, months or years into the project or product, some federal agency will show up with an order to cease and desist on environmental grounds.

Nanomaterials have dimensions of 100 nanometres or less, with a nanometre being about one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair. Nanoscale materials may have organisations and properties different than the same chemical substances at larger scales and offer broad potential for new materials and applications.

“I share many of these concerns,” Gordon said of the NRC report, adding that he plans to re-introduce legislation next year that would broaden federal control and coordination of nanotech research.

Gordon’s bill, HR-5940, was passed by the House last year with a large margin but was not voted on in the Senate. It would require development of a federal research plan on the environmental, health and safety (EHS) aspects of nanotech developments.

The measure would require a federal mandate for near-term research goals, timelines and milestones for achieving those targets, and specific responsibilities for multiple federal agencies for reaching those objectives.

Gordon said the NRC study shows that such a broad federal approach to environmental safety in nanotech development is necessary.

That study found that despite increasing use of nanomaterials in a wide variety of consumer goods and in industry, there is no comprehensive federal approach to monitoring and forestalling potential ill effects of nanotechnology products as they migrate through commerce.

The NRC did not evaluate whether current uses of nanomaterials pose health or environmental risks.

“Rather, the report focused on what would constitute an effective national research strategy for ensuring that current and future uses of nanomaterials are without significant impacts on human health or the environment,” according to the NRC.

However, according to the NRC, the NNI effort thus far has been inadequate.

“The current plan catalogues nano-risk research across several federal agencies, but it does not present an overarching research strategy needed to gain public acceptance and realize the promise of nanotechnology,” said David Eaton, who headed the NRC study.  Eaton is a professor of environmental health science at the University of Washington.

Eaton was critical of the NNI plan, saying it “does not provide a clear picture of the current understanding of these risks or where it should be in 10 years”. 

“Nor does the NNI plan include research goals to help ensure that nanotechnologies are developed and used as safely as possible,” he added.

He said that a new national strategic plan is needed that goes beyond federal research to incorporate research from academia, industry, consumer and environmental groups, and other stakeholders.

The NRC noted that more than 600 products involving nanomaterials are already on the market, the majority of them health and fitness products, such as skin care and cosmetics. But those figures are at least a year old, and no one really knows how many products contain nanomaterials.

Over the next decade, said the NRC study, nanomaterials will be used increasingly in products ranging from medical therapies to food additives to electronics.

“Growing use of nanomaterials means that more workers and consumers will be exposed to them, and uncertainties remain about their health and environmental effects,” the NRC said. “While nanomaterials can yield special benefits, they may also have unexpected and possibly toxic properties.”

The NRC report echoed a complaint and recommendation voiced by some in the chemicals sector: the need for a central federal authority rather than the committee approach involving 26 different agencies.

“Although lead agencies - such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), among others - are given roles for overseeing nanotechnology research, there is no single organization or person that will be held responsible for whether the strategy delivers results,” the NRC said.

Gordon said his bill will remedy that shortcoming, giving overall authority for environmental, health and safety research on nanomaterials to a single lead federal agency, probably the White House office of science and technology policy.

Gordon said he will re-introduce his nanotech R&D bill soon in the 111th Congress next year. It is likely to pass in the House again.

“I am confident that there is interest in the Senate as well in moving similar legislation,” he said.

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By: Joe Kamalick
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