Status Report

AIP FYI #49: President’s S&T Council Briefed on Nanotechnology Issues

By SpaceRef Editor
April 15, 2004
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The nation’s science and engineering workforce, education, and
innovation system were discussed during the morning session of a
March 30 meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science
and Technology (PCAST), as reported in FYI #48. After lunch, the
Council members heard about current research on the health and
environmental impacts of nanomaterials, and the efforts of federal
agencies to regulate them.

There is “no consensus” within the scientific community about the
safety of purposely-engineered nanomaterials, reported Vicki Colvin
of Rice University. She explained that little is known about their
impacts on biological systems, and that consistent terminology to
discuss them does not even exist yet. She urged the U.S. to support
credible basic research, use the multi-agency National
Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to develop terminology and
standards, establish global leadership in defining the risks as a
basis for labeling and regulation, and learn from social scientists
about communicating risk to the public. “It will all come down to
public acceptance,” she predicted. David Diehl of PPG Industries,
an industrial coatings company, described the potential for
widespread use of nanomaterials in many products: “we see
nanotechnology impacting everything we do,” he said. Until proven
otherwise, he added, manufacturers should handle nanomaterials “as
unknown risks” and “take every precaution.”

Marburger reported that, under the auspices of the NNI, an
interagency working group is helping coordinate research on health,
safety and environmental issues, and another group is looking into
future regulation of nanomaterials. Clayton Teague of the National
Nanotechnology Coordination Office said that nearly 12 percent of
NNI funding annually goes to federal agency efforts for basic
research into interactions between nanotechnologies, the
environment, and the human body, and to the applications and
implications of this research. (In FY 2004, this amount was $105.8
million, or 11 percent of total NNI funding of $961 million.)

According to representatives of both the FDA and the EPA, it is
still unclear what nanomaterials and nanotechnologies might require
federal approval before going on the market. Norris Alderson warned
that the FDA only regulates sponsors’ claims for products, and may
not even know that certain products contain nanomaterials unless the
sponsor includes that information as part of the claim. Charles
Auer of the EPA said his agency is exploring whether certain
nanomaterials would fall under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Some nanotechnologies might be considered new uses of technologies
already on the market, while others might be treated as new
chemicals requiring submission for EPA approval before manufacture.
In the latter case, the manufacturer would be obligated to provide
any test and health data that is available, but Auer pointed out
that nearly 85 percent of new chemicals submitted for approval have
no such health data. Asked about the potential for a product to
show negative effects after FDA approval, Alderson replied that the
FDA tries to minimize such situations, but can never assure
consumers that there will be no adverse effects. Both he and
Alderson reiterated the need for consistent nomenclature to
facilitate the regulatory process. There was also discussion about
the need for more research, better computer models, new regulatory
tools, and international discussion and coordination as more
nanotechnologies come on the market.

Audrey T. Leath

Media and Government Relations Division

The American Institute of Physics

(301) 209-3094

SpaceRef staff editor.