Friday, June 10, 2011

Nanotechnology News You Can Use

Nanotechnology is a hot topic these days, mainly because people are trying to figure out how, or even whether, to regulate them compared to the same chemical in non-nano form.  Nano, of course, refers to very small sized versions (usually < 100 nanometers) of chemicals that may already have widespread use (e.g., carbon, titanium dioxide, etc.).  The question comes down to whether the small size gives the substance different physical-chemical properties and/or makes it more likely to cause toxicity.

On June 9, 2011, the White House issued a memo instructing regulators in all federal agencies to use "flexible, adaptive, and evidence-based approaches that avoid, wherever possible, hindering innovation and trade while fulfilling the federal government's responsibility to protect public health and the environment."  The memo cautioned agencies to "avoid making scientifically unfounded generalizations that categorically judge all applications of nanotechnology as intrinsically benign or harmful,” and offered ten principles to address concerns.

Meanwhile, on the same day, the USEPA announced a proposed policy for obtaining information on what nanoscale materials are contained in pesticide products.  The proposal relies on a case-by-case approach to determine if a nanoscale ingredient should be considered "new active or inert ingredient" despite having a non-nano form already registered under FIFRA, the US pesticide law.

Finally, the FDA has gotten into the act by "taking the 'first step' toward greater regulatory certainty around nanotechnology." On the same day as the EPA and White House announcements, FDA released a "draft guidance to provide regulated industries with greater certainty about the use of nanotechnology, which generally involves materials made up of particles that are at least one billionth of a meter in size. The guidance outlines the agency’s view on whether regulated products contain nanomaterials or involve the application of nanotechnology."  The guidance names "certain characteristics – such as the size of nanomaterials used and the exhibited properties of those materials – that may be considered when attempting to identify applications of nanotechnology in regulated products."

All of these announcements reflect a worldwide effort to better characterize nano-scale materials and their safety to the public and environment.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

EPA Goes Transparent Again - Removes Confidentiality Claims for 150+ Chemicals

In its continuing efforts to make chemical information more transparent, the USEPA has decided to make public "the identities of more than 150 chemicals contained in health and safety studies that had been claimed confidential by industry."  EPA is taking this, and other actions, to "provide the public with greater access to information on the chemicals that are manufatured and used in the United States."  According to Steve Owens, Assistant Administrator for EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention:

“A health and safety study with the chemical name kept secret is completely useless to the public.” 

As expected, the NGO advocacy community responded positively to the announcement, though they would prefer even more information to be released to the public.  The chemical industry, led by the American Chemistry Council, noted that it supported "EPA's mission to promote public understanding of the potential risks posed by chemicals in commerce," but also was concerned that "critical information needed by businesses to innovate and succeed in a competitive international marketplace” needed to be kept confidential."

 More information can be found at the EPA site here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

EPA Gets a "Scientific Integrity Officer"

The USEPA now has its first scientific integrity officer.  EPA named William Sanders, an EPA veteran who is currently the Director of the National Center for Environmental Research (NCER) at EPA to the position.  Sanders will be in charge of implementing EPA's new scientific integrity policy, which was initiated by executive order from President Obama and is due to be completed some time in the fall.

Sanders' appointment comes before an expected report from the Inspector General's office within EPA, which will include advice on what steps need to be taken to ensure the integrity of all scientific work done at EPA.  The IG recently faulted EPA for its lack of action identifying endocrine disruptor chemicals as required by two laws passed in 1996.  The upcoming IG report, expected this summer, reviewed EPA internal policies and processes and will provide advice on maintaining scientific credibility, identifying and dealing with scientific misconduct, and record keeping. 

Sanders has been at EPA for more than three decades in a variety of roles.  According to sources, the role as NCER chief has caused some to question his ability to take on the new appointment.  Apparently morale has been dropping since he started at NCER, with many employees choosing to leave.  Still, the scientific integrity officer role will allow Sanders to oversea the new integrity policy and incorporate the suggestions from IG and others.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Scientists say Carbon Release to Atmosphere 10 Times Faster than in the Past

Specifically, in the the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), which was about 55.9 million years ago, and according an the international team of research geologists, is "the best analog we have for current global warming."  And that rate of carbon release "may not allow sufficient time for the biological environment to adjust."

As noted in a recent Science Daily article, there are some uncertainties with the core data during this time period because the cores contain layers of calcium carbonate, and "when large amounts of greenhouse gases -- carbon dioxide or methane -- are in the atmosphere, the oceans become more acidic, and acid dissolves calcium carbonate."  The concern is the change may appear more abrupt than it actually was because of the incomplete record.  So the fact that the PETM rate may have been perhaps slower than we think emphasizes even more the fact that the current rate of carbon release is 10 times faster.  In short, it could be more than 10 times.

"We looked at the PETM because it is thought to be the best ancient analog for future climate change caused by fossil fuel burning."

According to the researchers, "The outcome was a warming of from 9 to 16 degrees Fahrenheit and an acidification event in the oceans."  And that's not good.  Furthermore, according to Lee R. Kump, a professor of geosciences at Penn State:

"Rather than the 20,000 years of the PETM which is long enough for ecological systems to adapt, carbon is now being released into the atmosphere at a rate 10 times faster. It is possible that this is faster than ecosystems can adapt."

For those who want to read the original journal article, the full citation is:

Ying Cui, Lee R. Kump, Andy J. Ridgwell, Adam J. Charles, Christopher K. Junium, Aaron F. Diefendorf, Katherine H. Freeman, Nathan M. Urban, Ian C. Harding. Slow release of fossil carbon during the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Nature Geoscience, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/ngeo1179

Monday, June 6, 2011

NGO Calls on Chemical Industry to Initiate Biomonitoring of Chemicals in People

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), long known for its reports on chemicals found in people, cosmetics, and sunscreens, has written a letter to USEPA Administrator Lisa Jackson urging her to use EPA's authority to compel the chemical industry to conduct biomonitoring studies.  EWG argues that "biomonitoring studies are regularly conducted by academic and government scientists and have become vital elements in determining toxic pollutants found in the bodies of Americans and the health risks these chemicals may pose," but that there was "little evidence that industry is submitting biomonitoring studies to EPA." According to EWG President Ken Cook:

“Logically, the chemical industry should be conducting the same basic studies to understand the safety of its chemicals for the public. And if not, then why not?”
According to their news release, the NGO "strongly advocates that regulators and industry test for synthetic chemical contaminants in people, especially in human umbilical cord blood. These tests demonstrate how readily chemicals enter and accumulate in our bodies, even during the earliest stages of development.”  Cook argues that section 8(d) of TSCA gives EPA the authority to require the submission of "unpublished health and safety studies, as well as authority under TSCA 8(e) to require immediate notification of any evidence of "substantial risk."

The letter from EWG to Administrator Jackson can be read and downloaded as a PDF here.