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Posted: February 11, 2008
Wisconsin first in country to eye mandatory nanotechnology registry
(Nanowerk News) Growing concern over the potential risks that nanotechnology might pose to the environment and human health have some lawmakers and state agencies looking into how they might regulate the technology, which is already being used in more than 1,000 consumer and food products, though many researchers say regulations are premature.
“Right now there’s just not enough information on the toxicology of any of these nanomaterials to make any rational basis for developing any kind of regulation,” says Robert Hamers, a UW-Madison nanotechnology researcher. “We certainly see some toxic effects of nanoparticles, but from what we’ve seen in experiments, the concentrations to reach toxicity are actually pretty high.”
In December, Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) began calling for a statewide registry to account for what nanoscale materials are being produced and in what amounts. Citing myriad unknowns about the toxicological properties of nanomaterials, Berceau says it’s imperative for regulators to find ways to minimize any risks these suboptical particles might pose.
Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, says he hasn’t heard from Berceau’s office, but says the council is reluctant to embrace anything that would restrict research. Berceau says the registry would inventory the nanomaterials being made, not place restrictions on their use.
Nanotechnology is the science of working with materials and particles in the 1 to 100 nanometer range. At the nanoscale, particles exhibit a variety of phenomena and novel properties that can be exploited for an ever-growing variety of purposes. Nearly every major industry has embraced the technology, which has been hailed as the next Industrial Revolution.
Currently, there are no standards or regulations requiring a commercial entity to disclose the nanomaterials they use or to perform toxicological testing to ensure they’re safe. The Department of Natural Resources has been discussing what they call an emerging issue for some time, with other state agencies like the Departments Health and Family Services and Agriculture expressing interest in the issue.
On Jan. 28, the Environmental Protection Agency launched its voluntary federal registry, which was hailed by watchdogs as a positive first step, but criticized because it doesn’t offer incentives for industry participation.
According to a newsletter published last month by the Environmental Protection Agency, Wisconsin’s Legislature is the first in the nation to eye mandatory reporting requirements for the multi-billion dollar nanotech industry. But rather than introduce legislation, Berceau is hoping the industry will get behind the effort.
“We don’t have a blueprint for this. We’re learning as we go,” she says. “We want to promote the industry, but we also want to know what we’re dealing with. Who knows if the science is even advanced enough to answer these questions?”
In 2007, the United States spent more than $1.3 billion researching the technology. Less than one percent of government research spending went to studying the risks. But the technology’s primary benefactor is private industry, whose toxicology research, is trade secret protected. And that, says scientist Maria Powell, is troublesome.
“There is a huge data gap just with what are people making and where they’re making it,” says Powell. “This basic information seems kind of mundane, but it’s very important. If I’m going to anticipate what I would need to do to prevent problems, I have to know physically where these places are. It sounds crazy that we don’t even know that.”
One of Powell’s primary tasks is compiling a database of all known data on nanotechnology. She says the toxicological research she’s read raises some red flags, but that these studies are limited in scope.
“We have existing research showing that particles in that size range, when inhaled, are likely to cause problems,” says Powell. “There are also lots of studies showing cardio vascular problems. At that size range, particles can translocate to other parts of the body. After they leave the lungs, where do they go? We need to know those things, too.”
Though toxicological research is scarce, it does take place. UW-Madison, which has two centers dedicated to nanotechnology research, has performed some studies using Zebra fish, which are transparent, allowing researchers to observe things like organ development. Despite such testing, Hamers says that traditional thinking about compounds can’t be applied to nanomaterials.
“One of the big questions agencies like the EPA have is, given the complexity of these nanomaterials, how would you even begin to classify them?” he says. “In order to really assess the potential health impact, you have to have a way of developing models for what things are likely to affect their toxicity, because you’re not going to be able to do detailed studies on every single kind of nanoparticle.”
Berceau says the Department of Natural Resources has been considering nanotechnology’s environmental implications, but myriad challenges await. Powell says one big challenge facing regulators is that the highly-sensitive sensors needed to detect and monitor nanoparticles in the air haven’t been invented yet.
The DNR didn’t return calls from Dane101.
Berceau says feedback on the registry has so far been positive, but is anticipating some resistance from the commercial sector, which may feel that some materials are trade secret protected. Though she’d like to avoid introducing a bill on the issue, she says that if all else fails, it’s an option she’ll consider.
Hamers, who also co-owns a nanotechnology firm, doesn’t see much problem with a registry.
“I see no reason to want to hide anything we are doing,” says Hamers. “Having a database of nanomaterials is not such a bad thing. There is this fear that nanoparticles are much more dangerous than other things that are out there and I don’t believe that is true for most of the nanoparticles. We just want to be careful.”
The city of Berkeley, Calif., established a nanomaterial registry similar to the one being proposed by Berceau. In Madison, city officials haven’t moved that fast, but the mayor’s office is keeping an eye on the issue.
“Generally speaking, this is an emerging issue that we simply need to learn more about,” says mayoral spokesperson George Twigg. “Our Public Health Department staff are aware of it, and monitoring the research that is taking place. As we learn more, we'll get a better sense of what, if any, actions we should be taking.”
Meanwhile, Powell believes that even if some are reluctant to embrace a registry or regulations, the need for them is becoming increasingly clear as the technology becomes more pervasive.
“There are many businesses out there calling for more regulations, because they want guidance,” says Powell. “A lot of legal firms are advising clients to push for more guidance, because they know there could some liability down the line. It’s about creating a framework for responsible nanotechnology.”