Apr. 16, 2007 – As the science of tiny particles seeps into commercial markets, controversy is swelling over whether the nanotechnology industry can be trusted to regulate itself.
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Nanotechnology, which involves using extremely small particles to make electronics, cosmetics and other products, is considered as a potential watershed for various industries â€“ and a potential ecological hazard. But one recent attempt to forge a partnership between environmental advocates and nanotech-business interests has bred fears that the appearance of industry self-regulation could trump government oversight.
In an open letter issued last Thursday, several environmental groups, unions and other organizations blasted a safety-research plan called the "Nano Risk Framework" proposed by Environmental Defense, a conservation group, in partnership with DuPont, one of the firms leading nanotechnology development.
The critics, which include the International Center for Technology Assessment (CTA), Greenpeace, the AFL-CIO, Friends of the Earth and the United Steelworkers of America, said the Framework reflects corporate interests and is "at best, a public-relations campaign that detracts from urgent worldwide oversight priorities." The problem, they say, is that the Framework prioritizes voluntary standards dictated by private interests, rather than government regulatory systems.
The Food and Drug Administrationâ€™s current regulations do not target nanotechnology specifically, aside from conventional review and surveillance of drugs and other products.
A partnership between environmental advocates and nanotech-business interests breeds fears that cooperation with industry could trump government oversight.
Measured on the scale of about 1/100,000th the thickness of a sheet of paper, nanotechnology is currently used in products like computer hard-drives and sunscreens. The White Houseâ€™s National Nanotechnology Initiative says nanoparticles could in the future be used in pollution-control techniques, the harnessing of solar energy, and pharmaceutical products.
But public-health and environmental advocates say the commercialization of nanotechnology is outpacing research on its safety. The National Nanotechnology Initiative has identified various unresolved safety-research needs, such as whether the release of nanoparticles into habitats could result in dangerous contamination, or how workers in nanotech industries might be physically harmed.
The CTA and other groups have called for more government-led studies and monitoring of occupational exposure to nanoparticles, the health impact of nanoparticles in personal-care products, and potential effects on the chemistry of exposed ecosystems.
To supposedly fill some of these knowledge gaps, the Environmental Defense-Dupont partnership has outlined what it calls a "practical, and flexible" risk-assessment process. The guidelines, summarized on the partnershipâ€™s website, encourage formal analysis of a productâ€™s potential environmental health and safety risks and the development of plans for "managing" those risks. The guidelines allow producers "to move ahead despite areas of incomplete or uncertain information."
One of the stated aims of the Framework is to help establish a model for government regulatory policy.
Environmental Defense has promoted corporate partnerships as a complement to government regulation, encouraging industries to voluntarily reduce their harm to the environment. The group also supports nanotechnology development for use in renewable-energy production and pollution clean-up.
But critics say pushing voluntary self-monitoring is shortsighted, especially as research and public awareness on the issue are still emerging.
Some advocates worry the Framework could be used to preempt more formal public-health and environmental regulations. Friends of the Earth, which advocates blocking further marketing of nanotech products pending additional safety studies, has called on regulatory bodies and lawmakers to take the lead in setting standards for the industry. Spokesperson Erich Pica said "a broad public discussion," engaging environmental, labor and other public-interest groups, should guide policies on handling nanotechnology and its risks.
"There is a real and immediate role that the federal government as well as international governmental bodies can play on nanotechnology," he said. "This is much bigger and broader than a voluntary framework thatâ€™s been negotiated between an environmental organization and a company."