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Nanotech's Promise, Perils Outlined in New PEN Study

Nanotech's Promise, Perils Outlined in New PEN Study

As an emerging industry, nanotech has captured the imagination of scientists, business leaders and consumers alike. But a new report warns that without oversight from the EPA, nanotechnology has the potential to threaten human health and the environment in unexpected ways.

The report, "EPA and Nanotechnology: Oversight for the 21st Century," was produced by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Wilson Center. Former EPA assistant administrator for policy, planning and evaluation, J. Clarence Davies, authored the report to provide a road map for a how the EPA can better handle the challenges of nanotechnology.

Because new products using nanomaterials are hitting the market every week, an adequate oversight system is necessary to get out front of the industry and prevent or minimize negative effects of nanotech on health or the environment.

"This new report seeks to encourage EPA, Congress, and others to create an intelligent oversight approach that empowers EPA and promotes investment and innovation in new nanotechnology products and processes," said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Wilson Center.

The report provides a thorough analysis of how nanotechnology can serve as a catalyst for change in EPA and existing regulatory frameworks. It identifies major areas that require transformation within the agency-including science, program integration, personnel, international activities and program evaluation.

In the report, Davies lays out more than 25 steps that the EPA, Congress, the president, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative and the nanotechnology industry as a whole should take to improve the oversight of nanotechnology. Among the recommendations made are the following:
  • The EPA should launch its proposed voluntary program to collect nanotechnology risk information and should begin immediately to revise the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to better deal with nanotechnology.

  • The EPA and industry should create a joint research institute to conduct scientific research on nanotechnology effects.

  • The EPA should set up and lead an interagency regulatory coordinating group for nanotechnology oversight.

  • Congress should establish a temporary committee in each house to consider options for a nanotechnology oversight mechanism.

  • Congress should provide an additional $50 million each year for research on the health and environmental effects of nanotechnology products and processes.

  • Congress should remove constraints that limit the EPA's ability to require that companies collect and share necessary data and other information the agency needs to oversee nanotechnology.
Davies discusses the importance of public participation and dialogue throughout this process. He also examines the role of state and local governments.

In an announcement tied to the release of Davies' report, William D. Ruckelshaus, who served as the EPA's first administrator from 1970 to 1973, said:
For over thirty years, the EPA has dealt with the impacts of the last industrial revolution -- the internal combustion engine, steam-generated electricity, and basic chemical synthesis. Today, another industrial revolution is occurring. It is being driven by nanotechnology and its convergence with information technology and biotechnology.

Nanotechnology holds tremendous potential -- for breakthroughs in medicine, in the production of clean water and energy, and in computers and electronics. It may be the single most important advance of this new century. But with its ability to fundamentally change the properties of matter, nanotechnology also may pose both the greatest challenge and biggest opportunity for EPA in its history.
"EPA and Nanotechnology: Oversight for the 21st Century" was commissioned by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable Trusts. The report is available online at NanotechProject.org.