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Posted: January 17, 2008

A bottom-up approach to nanotechnology safety

(Nanowerk News) You know that stain-repellant necktie you saw at the store this holiday season? Well that very tie — which uses nanotechnology to enable that stain-resistant power – may be causing your hometown to take measures to require a warning label along with the sales receipt.
Within the next month, a panel of advisers to the Department of Public Health in Cambridge will deliver a set of recommendations to the City Council on how to deal with nanotechnology firms operating inside the city’s boundaries.
But Cambridge isn’t the first city to address uncertainties surrounding nanotech. About a year ago the city of Berkeley, Calif., put in place the world’s first ordinance requiring nanotech firms to disclose their activities. Berkeley’s mayor explained the absence of federal action on nanotechnology forced the city’s hand: “If the federal government isn’t going to do anything, it is up to us to step up.”
Nanotechnology allows us to manipulate matter at an atomic level, creating whole new substances and forms of existing substances with novel properties. However, until the science and risk assessments catch up with the stream of commercial products and production processes, many experts believe citizens at the least should know what is going on in their own community.
But stain-resistant clothes aren’t the only nanotech goods on the market. Last year, an estimated $50 billion in nanotechnology manufactured goods were in commerce, from cosmetics to sporting goods to, well, neckties. By 2014, this figure is expected to grow to $2.6 trillion, or 15 percent of global manufactured goods.
So while we wait for a coherent national oversight system for nanotechnologies to be designed and implemented — a process that could take between five and 10 years — there are actions the federal government can take now. Cambridge may follow Berkeley’s lead and use a right-to-know approach at the federal level to provide an interim, stopgap means of allowing regulators to collect critical information, address public concerns and provide a transparent system for businesses.
The federal government has developed an extensive infrastructure of nanotech research facilities across the country. A strong and direct start would be the promulgation of a presidential executive order that requires federally owned facilities that handle nanomaterials to disclose what they know about the toxicity of those materials and the measures they are taking to manage potential risks. One might argue that if our federal government can’t share with us what it knows — and ultimately address the risks and public concerns around nanotechnology — it shouldn’t be investing over a billion dollars a year to develop the technology.
Some may argue that disclosures about nanomaterials are premature until more is known about their toxicity. But with nano-manufacturing ramping up across the United States and hundreds of nano-based products already on the market, we think the riskier path is the current approach. Lack of complete information does not justify a failure to inform the public about what is known. In fact, history tells us that transparency is the best way of encouraging responsible handling of nanomaterials and educating the public about their benefits as well as potential risks. Without transparency, public backlash could limit the commercialization of a wide range of nano-engineered products and compromise future generations of promising applications.
Leslie Carothers is president of the Environmental Law Institute. David Rejeski directs the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Source: Wicked Local (Leslie Carothers and David Rejeski)
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