Excerpt from the Chapter Nanotechnology.
Pages 154 – 155
So, Colvin asks, “How do you create a safe system for these materials? How do you make decisions with a science in progress?” Part of what makes developing safety protocols, let alone standards for nanomaterials so complex, Colvin reminds me, is that “there are so many permutations of a nanoparticle that it upends the traditional strategy of single-item toxicology.” This means that new safety procedures are needed for handling, working with, and producing nanomaterials–something being called for by industry and scientists, and also now by governments. In 2005, however, less than 4 percent of the U.S. federal spending budget dedicated to nanotechnology was designated for environmental, health, and safety research. In 2007, I was told off-the-record by an EPA official that much of the oversight of nanotechnology that had been done was being carried out not by the federal government but by the Wilson Center and other institutions, although much of this research did receive EPA funding. The implication was that the federal government had fallen behind on the job and that the Bush administration let that happen.
Since then, there has been a litany of reports–including from the National Research Council–pointing out lack of oversight in nanotechnology, the lack of resources currently available for such work within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the lack of adequate safety testing for nanomaterials currently in consumer products, now processed foods among them. According to the Wilson Center, as of December 2008, the worldwide nanotechnology food market was estimated to grow to more than $20 billion by 2010. By the center’s count there were already some 84 consumer products in the food-and-beverage sector that manufacturers claim are nanotechnology products.
There has also now been a flurry of efforts to regulate nanotechnology. In January 2009, a nanotechnology research bill that would increase funding for environmental health and safety work was introduced by Representative Barton Gordon of Tennessee along with twenty-one cosponsors and support from the House Science and Technology Committee. At about the same time, Canada proposed legislation that would require companies using nanotechnology products to detail their use. And under a law passed in the European Union in March 2009 that will be become effective in 2012, all cosmetics made with nanomaterials will have to undergo safety testing and have all such ingredients listed if they’re to be sold in the EU. But as of April 1, 2009, the United States has no specific provisions for testing the safety of products containing nanomaterials or any labeling requirements for such products.
Currently, for practical purposes–as far as consumer products are concerned–nanomaterials are generally being treated like any other new synthetics that come onto the market. They have been launched into commercial production with little real knowledge of what their long-term environmental or health impacts may be. And while green chemistry advocates like Anastas, Colvin, Collins, and Hutchinson have articulated quite clearly–both in terms of policy and their own work–how important it is to consider the full range of nanomaterials’ impacts at the design stage, the products of such thinking have yet to become the norm.
At a “Safer Nano” conference I attended in 2007, I listened to a presentation that described a series of nanomaterials that were layered compounds with reactive properties that can be used in insulation and cooling materials. (One possible application is in vehicle upholstery.) One of the compounds described contained antimony, lead, silver, and tellurium. “Lead. What is lead doing in a ‘safer’ material? I wondered. Aren’t we now keeping children off playing fields coated with artificial turf because it contains lead dust and taking toys off shelves because of lead contamination? And these now-barred products have big–not nano-scale–particles of lead. After decades of being misled that the lead content in paint was not a health hazard, why should the public accept the assurance that lead in a nanomaterial that heats car seats is not a problem? The amounts of lead in such a product might be so small as to be insignificant even by the most sensitive measures of health effects. On the other hand, the particles might be so small as to create new problems. Again, at this point we just don’t know. And the challenge is to figure out how to develop transparent and effective testing that will protect public and environmental health but not impede innovative technology……
Precisely because nanomaterials are distinctly different from others, they create a special imperative, says Paul Anastas, “To get things right at the design stage.” With nanomaterials, says Anastas, we need to have “innovation by design and not by accident.” And because the products are already on store shelves, in our kitchen and bathroom cabinets, it is especially imperative that we begin to catch up with this avalanche of new materials. Anastas adds: “We’re on the verge of having a very scared public–irrationally in some cases–if we don’t ask the questions that could cut the risks.”