Thursday, January 18, 2007


This week there was an interesting article by Barnaby J. Feder in the New York Times reporting on the regulation or non-regulation of nanoparticles. The article raises questions about regulating the release and use of chemicals produced as tiny particles (on the scale of nanometers - or one billionth of a meter.)

As a relatively new technology, it will be interesting to see if regulators and industry learn from past experiences with chemical releases and contamination. One lesson is precaution. I know that’s thrown around a lot lately. But, in terms of industry - take the perfluorinated chemical (PFOA/PFOS) example - where tons were realeased and they were exempted from regulation. Once it was noted as an environmental issue, industry has been able to cut back environmental release by large amounts. If only they had done that from the beginning.

Also these days we do have the capability to evaluate impacts of contaminants both on environment and on health (if you can make a distinction) on a finer scale than we could or did before. What we do with that information, could be based on what we’ve learned in the past - be cautious with chemicals that are persistant or that are constantly released into a system either by either consumer products or by industry – when we don’t know enough about the impacts on living things. I don’t know enough about nanoparticles just yet to know if they fall or would fall into either catagory but I’m not sure if anyone does at this point. I hope to learn more and write up a more detailed article on nanoparticles in the next week or so.

It will be interesting to observe the progress of nanotechnology and regulation of nanotech. Unlike previous technology or industrial chemicals/products, where many, even in the environmental health world, were unaware of a chemical’s widespread release or environmental dispersion many groups are watching this one closely. One group is the Project on Emerging Technologies.


Cal Baier-Anderson said...

We have an incredible challenge in evaluting the toxicity of manufactured nanomaterials. They are already present in several different types of consumer products. The degree in which nanomaterials differ in toxicity from the parent bulk material (same chemical formula, but larger particles or bulk form) will vary depending on a lot of different factors, so evaluating toxicity will be expensive...not that this is an excuse! It is extremely important to do the work because we know that nanoparticles from combustion products (called ultrafine particulates) can pass through lung tissue to get into the blood where they can harm heart tissue. Several studies indicate that SOME manufactured nanomaterials can pass through cell barriers, too. There are likely to be many beneficial uses of manufactured nanomaterials (in medicine, tumor targeting, for example) but to exploit the benefits we need to know the risks.

Emily Monosson said...

The more I learn about nanoparticles and production, the more I realize that what might have been a great opportunity to apply what we've learned, may have already passed by us, in part for the reasons you mention (that nanoparticles in some cases behave differently from their larger counterparts) and by some estimates over 300 products containing nanomaterials are already on the market!

But there are somes signs that industry, environmental groups and gov't may pull together on this one, so that hopefully we won't once cleaning up long after the cat's left the bag.