And A “Mouse” Shall Lead Them?

John Good/ NPS Photo(NHI Nanoblog) As the federal government struggles with how to regulate super-small materials in consumer products, it may find some inspiration in a Massachusetts law with the acronym “TURA.” 

Jennifer Nash, executive director of the Regulatory Policy Program and associate director of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, thinks the Massachusetts law, which covers the use toxic chemicals, offers a potential framework for how the U.S. can proceed as it tries to catch up with Europe in tackling the unknown health and environmental effects of nanotechnology.

In a presentation at the recent Fifth International Symposium on Nanotechnology, Occupational and Environmental Health, Nash compared the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act to the federal law that covers some of the same ground.

Nanotechnology leverages super-small particles (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter) to create products with remarkable properties. These materials can make bike frames lighter and stronger and sunscreen more transparent on the skin, as well as new medical instruments and medicines that can save lives.

There is broad agreement that nanomaterials have lots of potential for a wide variety of applications. But shrinking these substances can change their properties; scientists are struggling to figure out whether, how and why that shift can make them dangerous in the process.

The Massachusetts law, which is known as TURA, resembles the federal Toxic Substances Control Act (aka TSCA) in several ways, Nash said. Both try to prevent problems before they happen and gather and information about harmful substances; neither dictates to companies what kind of technologies they can use. But Nash likened TSCA to a sleeping lion when it comes to nanotechnology: powerful, to be sure, but only when that strength is used.

TURA, on the other hand, is more like a busy little mouse, she said: enforcement pushes companies to search for alternatives to harmful chemicals and other materials, at the very least encouraging them to use less of them and only in the most compelling circumstances.

TURA is less powerful, at least on paper, than TSCA, Nash said, “but this mouse is roaring.”

Effective regulation—not just of nanomaterials—requires three steps, Nash said. First, generating information about what’s in use, and making it accessible; second, tapping into the existing knowledge of the very companies using these materials; third, being flexible enough to handle changes as more is known about these substances.

By these standards, “this lion spends a lot of time sleeping,” Nash said of TSCA. Few chemicals are tested, and the law creates incentives for companies not to share what they know with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is the primary enforcement arm.

TURA, on the other hand, allows for a two-way dialogue, as well as input from other voices, since anyone can suggest a chemical for testing under the law.

In terms of national policy, TURA probably can offer guidance on how to assess risk from potentially dangerous chemicals, and focus industry attention on these issues, Nash said. Where it would fall short, she said, is in offering companies an independent incentive to dig deeper into what’s in their factories.

Revamping TSCA has drawn interest in recent years, but little progress has been made.

While TURA isn’t a panacea, it does have some good advice, Nash said. In that way, Massachusetts is among a handful of states—most notably California—that seem to be trying to fill the void left by federal inaction.

“At the state level, we’re seeing a lot of ideas bubbling up,” she said.

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