US agency to proactively study nanomaterials of environmental concern

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a new research strategy to more proactively examine the impacts of manufactured nanomaterials on human health and the environment. Nanomaterials - which are generally between one and 100 nanometers in size - are increasingly being used in common consumer products such as paint, sunscreen, cosmetics and sports equipment.

Under EPA’s new plan, unveiled on 29 September, the agency is focusingits research on seven manufactured nanomaterial types: single-walled carbon nanotubes, multi-walled carbon nanotubes, fullerenes, cerium oxide, silver, titanium dioxide, zero-valent iron.  

EPA has determined that these seven material types may require ’safety decisions’ under its regulatory programmes. The one exception is zero-valent iron, which was chosen because of its potential use in cleaning up pollution. 

The materials were also selected for scrutiny based on the their current use in products, EPA’s near-term needs, research underway at other US government agencies, and the recommendations of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) working party on manufactured nanomaterials, which was established in March 2007 to provide advice on the responsible development of nanotechnology.

’Since this is an EPA internal strategy, it tells industry and others what the key science questions are that we at EPA believe need to be addressed,’ says Jeff Morris, the agency’s programme director for nanotechnology.

Over time, EPA expects to extend its efforts to other types of nanomaterials. Testing the many potential variations of materials within each of the initial seven material types would be ’very resource intensive’, according to EPA. Therefore, the ultimate goal is to develop predictive models and tools that will enable testing across these material types.

Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, tells Chemistry World that EPA’s new strategy represents a ’much more proactive approach’ on the part of the agency. ’Earlier drafts were in the EPA style of saying what great job they were doing in this area, but the strategy has evolved into a document that is very clear on what the needs are and what the agency can do to address these needs,’ he adds.

Good science

’If this works out as the agency hopes, it means that regulatory decisions in the future will be based on good science and good evidence,’ Maynard tells Chemistry World

For industry, the development might mean less wasted time. A good deal of uncertainty currently exists about the safety of nanomaterials, and that has lead to a lot more work for the private sector because companies are not sure exactly how to address related concerns. 

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a US chemical industry trade association,  is also enthusiastic about EPA’s new plan. Bill Gulledge, who manages the ACC’s nanotechnology panel, calls the strategy ’a great step forward’. The trade group is pleased that EPA has established priorities and benchmarks for nanomaterials research. ’In commenting on the draft, we wanted more of a coordinated roadmap,’ Gulledge explains.

But there is some question about whether EPA will have the resources to implement its new nanotechnology strategy. It is unclear whether the agency will receive the resources needed to address the research questions set out in the plan, and complete them in a timely fashion.

As part of the OECD’s nanomaterial testing programme, the US is sponsoring or co-sponsoring the testing of all of the seven materials identified in the new plan, primarily through EPA. In particular, the agency is taking leadership roles in the testing of cerium, C-60 fullerenes, nanotubes, silver, and titanium dioxide. 

EPA acknowledges that  the number of nanomaterials that exist in the marketplace is ’large and growing’, and go beyond the materials chosen for near-term study. Nevertheless, the agency says these seven material types represent a good starting point for the new programme, which is expected to evolve together with state of nanoscience and as environmental decision-support needs change. 

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Europe