Feds wonder whether tiny materials play big health role

Posted June 10, 2011, at 5:35 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Federal regulators announced Thursday two actions that will aim to clarify the role that extremely small materials can play in items such as cosmetics and food production and packaging.

The Environmental Protection Agency said that it will seek to determine whether nanomaterials in pesticide products can “cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment and human health.”

And the Food and Drug Administration released draft guidelines to industries about when the use of nanomaterials might trigger regulatory interest. The FDA named certain characteristics – such as the size of nanomaterials used and their properties – that may be considered when trying to identify applications of nanotechnology in products.

Nanomaterials measure about three-billionths of an inch or less, small enough to penetrate the lungs, brain and possibly the skin.

Government officials said that nanomaterials “have a range of potentially beneficial public and commercial applications,” such as pest control. According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, nanomaterials are also in lotions, sunscreens, hamburger containers, air purifiers and toys.

But academics, researchers and scientists say the rapidly growing but little-understood science merits wider study.

“We want to obtain timely and accurate information on what nanoscale materials may be in pesticide products. This information is needed for EPA to meet its requirement under the law to protect health and environment,” said Steve Owens, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

The EPA wants to encourage the “responsible and innovative” use of nanomaterials as it addresses health concerns. The policy proposal will be published in the Federal Register and submitted for public comment.

Jay West, manager of the American Chemistry Council’s Nanotechnology Panel, said the plan might create “an unjustifiable bias against nanotechnology.” The EPA “is creating the false impression that there are always adverse effects from using nanotechnology in pesticides,” he said, and nanomaterials can spur innovations such as formulations that can more efficiently reach the target.

Andrew Light, a professor of ethics and public policy at George Mason University, welcomed the announcement.

“I think it’s a very important decision . . . because it reverses the irresponsible policy that the [George W.] Bush administration settled on, which essentially left the responsibility for the safety of those products solely in the hands of the industry,” Light said.

In 2006, Germany reported the first health-related recall of a nanotechnology product when at least 77 people reported severe respiratory problems in a week after using “Magic Nano,” a bathroom cleanser.

“The last thing you want is some accident to happen causing harm to people, leading to a lack of confidence in the technology,” Light said.

 

 

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