Washington Post
October 23, 2005



By Juliet Eilperin

With little fanfare, the Environmental Protection Agency has for the
first time ruled on a manufacturer's application to make a product
composed of nanomaterials, the new and invisibly small particles that
could transform the nation's engineering, industrial and medical

The agency's decision to approve the company's plan comes amid an
ongoing debate among government officials, industry representatives,
academics and environmental advocates over how best to screen the
potentially toxic materials. Just last week, a group of academics,
industry scientists and federal researchers, working under the
auspices of the nonprofit International Life Sciences Institute,
outlined a set of principles for determining the human health effects
of nanomaterial exposures.

By year-end, the EPA plans to release a proposal on how companies
should report nanomaterial toxicity data to the government.

"Toxicity studies are meaningless unless you know what you're working
with," said Andrew Maynard, who helped write the institute's report
and serves as chief science adviser to the Project on Emerging
Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for
Scholars, a Washington-based think tank.

Because of their tiny size, nanomaterials have special properties that
make them ideal for a range of commercial and medical uses, but
researchers are still trying to determine how they might affect humans
and animals. Gold, for example, may behave differently when introduced
at nanoscale into the human body, where it is chemically inert in
traditional applications.

The institute's report urged manufacturers and regulators to evaluate
the properties of nanomaterials in laboratory tests, adding: "There is
a strong likelihood that the biological activity of nanoparticles will
depend on physiochemical parameters not routinely considered in
toxicology studies."

The EPA decided last month to approve the "pre-manufacture" of carbon
nanotubes, which are hollow tubes made of carbon atoms and potentially
can be used in flat-screen televisions, clear coatings and fuel cells.
The tubes, like other nanomaterials, are only a few ten-thousandths
the diameter of a human hair.

Jim Willis, who directs the EPA's chemical control division in the
Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, said he could not reveal
the name of the company that received approval for the new technology
or describe how that technology might be marketed. He added, however,
that the EPA reserved the right to review the product again if the
company ultimately decides to bring it to market.

Nanomaterials are already on the market in cosmetics, clothing and
other products, but these items do not fall under the EPA's regulatory
domain. EPA officials judge applications subject to the Toxic
Substances Control Act (TOSCA), a law dating from the mid-1970s that
applies to chemicals.

In a Wilson Center symposium last Thursday, Willis said "it is a
challenge" to judge nanotechnology under existing federal rules.

"Clearly, [TOSCA] was not designed explicitly for nanoscale
materials," he said, but he added that chemicals "have quite a number
of parallels for nanoscale materials" and that "in the short term, we
are going to learn by doing."

Scientific studies also suggest nanoparticles can cause health
problems and damage aquatic life. For instance, they lodge in the
lungs and respiratory tract and cause inflammation, possibly at an
even greater rate than asbestos and soot do.

"Nanoparticles are like the roach motel. The nanoparticles check in
but they don't check out," said John Balbus, health program director
for the advocacy group Environmental Defense. "Part of this is a
societal balancing act. Are these things going to provide such
incredible benefits that we're willing to take some of these risks?"

Nanomaterials have possible environmental advantages as well. For
instance, they can absorb pollutants in water and break down some
harmful chemicals much more quickly than other methods.

"Just because something's nano doesn't mean it's necessarily
dangerous," said Kevin Ausman, executive director of Rice University's
Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology. He added that
when it comes to nanotechnology's toxic effects, "we're trying to get
that data before there's a known problem, and not after there's a
known problem."

Companies such as DuPont are pushing to establish nanotechnology
safety standards as well, in part because they have seen how
uncertainties surrounding innovations -- such as genetically modified
foods -- have sparked a backlash among some consumers.

"The time is right for this kind of collaboration," said Terry Medley,
DuPont's global director of corporate regulatory affairs. "There's a
general interest on everyone's part to come together to decide what's
appropriate for this technology."

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