EPA Readies 3 Nano-Safety Rules

(NHI Nanoblog)The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working up new proposals aimed at nanotechnology products, some of which could be a precursor to formal regulation.

But the agency is not expecting to make quick work of these projects: The timetable for the lengthy process of collecting comments from industry, environmental activists and the public is likely to be a year or more. 

Two EPA officials said this week that manufacturers can expect to see movement in three areas, probably later this year or in early 2011. One is a “Significant New Use Rule” (known by the charming acronym SNUR). One is essentially a call for information from manufacturers about what they’re producing. And the third is an effort to compel more testing of existing substances to help define what’s safe and what might be less so.

Kenneth Moss, an official in the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, said the agency is, like others in the government, trying to get a handle on what’s being produced, how it works and what hazards, if any, some of these new, super-small, materials pose.

“The rules we’re talking about they’re all about getting more information,” Alwood said.

Many of the details are still being worked out. But some of the initiatives will be somewhat broad, said Moss and Jim Alwood, an environmental protection specialist.

The EPA issued a SNUR last month for single- and multi-walled carbon nanotubes. The rule requires companies that are using a known substance for something different (where the “significant new use” comes in) to notify the agency at least 90 days in advance. The agency is also working on a proposed conditional approval for a nanosilver product.

In addition to the new-use rule, Moss and Alwood said they’re working on projects associated with two elements of the Toxic Substances Control Act. One will be an “information gathering rule,” and is fairly self-explanatory. The other is a “test rule,” which would involve the testing of many emerging nanomaterials that are already in circulation. (If you’re getting lost in the agencyspeak, here’s a cheat sheet on exactly what these terms mean.)

These actions—and any movement toward regulation, really—is likely to be met with a fairly intense battle both inside and outside the walls of the EPA. Moss said it’s fair to say the agency is looking to the long controversy over genetically-modified food, such as salmon, as a template for what to expect long-term.

“We want to strike a balance between a beneficial technology and allaying people’s fears that you’re going to release the bug that ate Chicago,” he said.

How long the upcoming process takes depends largely on how difficult it will be to get EPA scientists and outside interests, both from the industry and environmental and consumer-protection groups, to agree, Alwood said.

Critics of the EPA, and other federal agencies, have said the government is moving too slowly to address potential problems involving nanotechnology, which is being applied in all kinds of products, from solar panels to face creams. But Moss and Alwood echoed the sentiments of many others involved in assessing the environmental and health impacts of nanomaterials, saying the key thing right now is understanding exactly what all of these substances are and what they can do—now and years down the road.

That includes working internationally, as other countries scramble to make sense of many of the same materials and techniques.

“We have to go through this in stepwise fashion, methodically, as much as people are going to push back and worry before we have all the information,” Moss said.

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