Oct. 12, 2006 – A new kind of ingredient in everyday products is undetectable to many microscopes, but it hasnâ€™t escaped the notice of consumer and environmental watchdog groups. Critics of the growing market in "nanotechnology" view it as a wellspring of potential health and safety risks, and are working to ensure that federal regulators apply the same vigilance.
This week, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held its first-ever hearing on nanotechnology, an emerging field of science based on tiny flecks of matter known as "nanoparticles." Measuring from one to 100 nanometers, these materials and their chemical functions are engineered on a scale described as "atomic "or "molecular." A human hair is about 80,000 nanometers wide.
The government, which has poured over a billion dollars into its National Nanotechnology Initiative to advance research in the field, has touted nanotechnology as a new frontier in creating more effective medical treatments and consumer products. By manipulating the tiny particles, researchers say they can create tools and materials to help diagnose diseases and refine oil, as well as make tennis balls more durable and eyeglasses more glare-resistant.
But the environmental organization Friends of the Earth and the science and technology think-tank International Center for Technology Assessment are pressing government regulators to take a more precautionary stance on nanotechnology. Testifying at the hearing, the groups called for tighter safety measures to detect and protect against possible health and environmental risks resulting from the new innovations.
Critics of the growing market in â€œnanotechnologyâ€ view it as a wellspring of potential health and safety risks, and are working to ensure that federal regulators apply the same vigilance.
Due to nanoparticlesâ€™ unique size and properties, said Erich Pica, domestic campaigns director with Friends of the Earth, "thereâ€™s a whole new realm of research that needs to be done to determine the human health impacts and the environmental impacts of these particles."
Currently, federal law does not require that companies disclose or label nanoparticle ingredients in cosmetics and health products.
Friends of the Earth is concerned that consumers may be unwittingly coating their bodies with nanoparticles contained in sunscreens, lipsticks, lotions, shampoos and other products. A database maintained by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, an initiative by Princeton Universityâ€™s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts, counts about 125 health and fitness products and 19 food and beverage products containing nanoparticles â€“ those that have voluntarily identified the ingredients.
According to a recent report by the federal National Nanotechnology Initiative on the risks of nanotechnology, emerging research on different types of exposure to nanotechnology â€“ such as through the application of nanoparticle-based sunscreen â€“ suggests that some nanoparticles may accumulate in bodily tissues over time, with possible toxic effects.
Consumer advocates are calling for a comprehensive, transparent system for corporations to test the safety of nanomaterials.
Recent scientific reviews by European researchers and by Britainâ€™s Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering have pointed to potential consequences of inhaling or absorbing nanoparticles that they say warrant deeper investigation. These include possible damage to bodily tissues, changes to DNA and abnormal immune system reactions.
The US National Nanotechnology Initiativeâ€™s report also describes potential environmental risks due to the highly reactive chemical nature of nanoparticles. They report also noted nanoparticles could bond easily with airborne pollutants, pollen and dust.
In an overview of nanotechnology on the FDA website, the agency states that for now, existing regulations provide enough control over nanotechnology, though regulations may be enhanced "if new risks are identified."
Pointing to the risks already identified by US and European researchers, the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA), Friends of the Earth and other groups recently petitioned the FDA to ramp up its regulatory protections. They called on the agency to devise special testing procedures for nanotechnology products; require full labeling of products that incorporate nanotechnology; and explicitly define the category of nanoparticles and their unique chemical properties.
The NanoBusiness Alliance, an industry association that includes companies and research institutions, insisted in a press statement last week that the current FDA safeguards are sufficient, and that regulation of cosmetics should be based on "a voluntary regulatory effort that has long maintained an excellent safety record."
But Jaydee Hanson, policy director with the ICTA, told The NewStandard the government should bar the introduction of new nanoproducts to the market until it establishes a comprehensive, transparent system for corporations to test the safety of nanomaterials. "If a productâ€™s going to be on the market," Hanson said, "consumers have a right to know whether itâ€™s safe or not, and that means that the groups testing the product make their information public."
Public-interest groups warn that the government is placing too much emphasis on product development at the expense of critical safeguards.
Estimated budget allocations for the Nanotechnology Initiative, distributed to the National Science Foundation and other agencies, totaled about $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2006. But according to government estimates, less than 5 percent of that funding went to researching nanotechnologyâ€™s social and health risks, and none of it went to the FDA.
At a press briefing last week, former FDA Deputy Commissioner for Policy Michael Taylor said responsible regulation of nanotechnology was hampered by "the failure of Congress and successive administrations to adequately fund even FDA's base operations."
Hanson said that as nanoparticles expand their reach in the mainstream market, the FDA has a critical opportunity now to marshal its resources and preempt potential health problems. "We donâ€™t want people to become ill from these substances because FDA did not take a proactive stance," he said.