Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Nano Nano: Yesterday the EU, Today the US pushes for new use rules on nanomaterials

Yesterday I noted that the EU President had called more stringent regulation of nanomaterials, those very small versions of substances that may, or may not, present a different risk pattern than their larger cousins.  But the EU isn't alone in pursuing greater regulation.  The US EPA has now issued a Final Rule for "Significant New Uses" of several specific nanomaterials called single- and multi-walled carbon nanotubes.  As the name suggests, these materials basically look like tubes of chickenwire, which may be either single (like the photo) or have more than one layer of chickenwire tube.

The significant new use rule (or lovingly, a SNUR), may be the beginning of wider EPA rulemaking activity on nanomaterials.  While nanotubes have some particular differences from other types of nanomaterials, for example, fullerenes (also known as buckeyballs as the base form was named after Buckminster Fuller, the developer of the geodesic dome, which the fullerenes resemble in structure), the actions taken could be a steppingstone for changes in the way other nanomaterials are regulated as well.  The SNUR addresses several issues including releases to water or dust emissions of such small particles, as well as how to deal with articles such as those products made from plastic where residues or erosion of substance may lead to nanoscale releases of the base chemical. One potential problem raised is that long, thin nanoscale materials such as nanotubes may act like asbestos fibers and find their way into the furthest reaches of the lungs.  Whether that is the case or not, the concern is there and is being raised by such people as those at NIOSH.

Where this will go is still a question, but we may find out sooner rather than later as it is expected that a broader SNUR being developed by EPA will be sent to OMB for review in the next few months. 

More to come on the nanomaterial front as there are reminders from regulators and advocacy groups that everyone took the safety of GMOs for granted until a public outcry, whether justified or not, began halting development.  The goal for nanomaterials has been to develop an appropriate mechanism for assuring safety.  Though in a way it is like closing the barn door after the horses have escaped since many of the products we have been using for years already contain nanoscale materials in their composition.

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