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July 2006 Symposium on Nanotechnology and the Environment: Responding to Public Concerns about Nanotechnology: Highlights, Question and Answer Session

July 13, 10:15 AM -12:00 PM

Responding to Public Concerns about Nanotechnology

Mr. Mark Greenwood, Ropes and Gray, Washington DC


The nanotechnology industry is not really an industry; rather, it is a set of technologies that can be applied to various industries. However, it may be treated as an industry for policy and regulatory purposes.

The general public has a positive reaction to medical improvement and improved consumer products. There is little support for a ban on nanotechnology development; a Woodrow Wilson Center survey revealed that 70% of respondents would not support such a ban. However, the public has concerns with adequate testing and movement to other routes of exposure (e.g., getting into food).

Applicability of Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) regulation of new chemicals is uncertain. There is uncertainty about when a nanomaterial is a “new material.” The difficult issue is assessing novel properties. How do properties relate to hazard? At what point do the nature of the material and the nature of the hazard get changed? How much of the macromolecule properties are relevant at the nanoscale? The form of use is also important. Nanoparticles are often part of a more complex mixture, and can agglomerate. Sometimes agglomeration increases toxicity; sometimes agglomerated particles are no longer nanoscale. Regulation of new products is often done by analogy to known existing products; however, structure activity relationships (SAR) might not work for assessing nanotechnology.

There is uncertainty about fate and transport, and about interactions between engineered and naturally-occurring nanomaterials. We do not currently have widespread technology to monitor for nanoparticles.

For risk management, occupational control and production design to reduce exposure are important. What control strategies can be used to limit release and exposure? Also, labeling will be a contentious issue. There will be some pressure to have labels that say only “contains nano,” but what are the implications of this?

It will be important for OSWER to define its role in nanotechnology. Some of the questions that OSWER will face include: how much nanomaterial is in the environment? Where is it, where does it go, and how much is there? Without effective monitoring, how will you estimate “how much?”

There is a need to develop capabilities in responding to spills, managing workplace exposure, and determining risks. There is also a need to prepare information for the public (for general dissemination and in response to questions). Existing regulatory programs will collect varying amounts of data on new nanomaterials, including data on the following: chemical and physical characteristics; production processes; occupational risk; and exposure. Existing programs will probably not gather information on monitoring data, fate and transport, or risk management for wastes. The level of information available will depend on the use (e.g., drugs and pesticides will be data-rich, whereas cosmetics will not).

Question-and-Answer Session

Mr. Greenwood indicated that manufacturers must provide regulators with information on what is in nanowaste. A questioner asked what we know about imports that contain nanoscale materials. Mr. Greenwood answered that, depending on the interpretation of TSCA, imports are regulated but compliance can be an issue. When asked about the potential to underestimate risk associated with nanomaterials, Mr. Greenwood answered that it is important to distinguish engineered nanomaterials from naturally-occurring ones (i.e., how do we regulate based on size alone when many natural nanomaterials also exist?). Regarding protective gear to prevent worker exposure to nanoscale materials, Mr. Greenwood indicated that this is a front-burner issue for NIOSH, OSHA, and industry. When asked how to distinguish nanotechnology as a legislative context, Mr. Greenwood indicated that Congress sees nanotechnology as a great opportunity, not as a problem. The Agency is in the best position to propose new legislation for nanotechnology. A questioner asked, Do you have concerns with the NNI’s definition of nanotechnology? Mr. Greenwood responded that the NNI definition is science-based; he wondered about how to translate this into the policy framework.

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