Nanotechnology's potential dangers, how it should be regulated, and why federal agencies have yet to meet the regulatory challenge.
Businesses based on the science of very small things - nanotechnology - are booming. But as tiny materials become commonplace in consumer products their use raises big questions about health and safety. On this edition of "Living on Earth's series of stories about nanotechnology, called "Let's Get Small" -- a look at the problems government agencies large and small face regulating nanomaterials. This story has two reports: Washington correspondent Jeff Young explains why there are still no federal rules governing the growing nanotech industry, and Mitra Taj reports on how cities are trying to get a handle on nanotechnology.
Down at the nano scale - a billionth of a meter - things can get weird. Nanomaterials could soon revolutionize manufacturing and medicine; but when otherwise ordinary materials behave in unexpected ways they throw a tiny monkey wrench into our system for keeping products safe. Andrew Maynard at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars did research on nanotechnology.
Maynard's research found one example of this: Carbon nanotubes, which are already in products from car parts to tennis rackets. Maynard and other researchers noticed that some carbon nanotubes in long fibers seemed a lot like another well-known fiber - asbestos.
But chemically Carbon nanotubes are still just carbon - the same as the graphite in your pencil. And that's the little monekywrench. Much of our current system for regulating hazards is based on the chemical makeup of the material in question. But with nanomaterials, it's size that matters.
Policy advisors and scientists packed a recent meeting at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center to learn more about the nanotech challenge to the regulatory system. Terry Davies, a senior fellow at the Washington think tank Resources for the Future, told them current federal safeguards are not up to the job.
Davies recommends much more safety research funding. He says the Food and Drug Administration should have more authority over cosmetics and dietary supplements. And he says laws on toxic substances should expand to let regulators look beyond chemistry for potential hazards. But those changes are complicated, partly because there are two dozen federal agencies involved. It is Clayton Teague's job to keep them straight. Teague directs the National Nanotechnology Coordination office. He says each agency is clarifying how to apply existing rules. But they want to know more before considering any new regulations.
Massachusetts is one of the country's nano-tech hotspots. Cambridge has about a dozen businesses that work with nano-scale materials - but precious little information on what this tiny technology means for public health.
At a recent city council meeting, Cambridge city manager Robert Healy presented the taskforce's recommendations: for now, the city isn't requiring companies to disclose usage of nano-scale materials, but it is asking them to.
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