Fewer companies than expected sign up to voluntary programme

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is facing criticism after its voluntary nanosafety programme attracted less interest from industry than anticipated. 

The Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Programme (NMSP) was launched in January 2008 to shed light on nanomaterials that are already being produced and used by industry. 

But three days after the 28 July deadline for US companies to voluntarily provide data under the NMSP, only 19 businesses had made submissions covering 90 nanomaterials to the agency’s ’basic program’ - through which companies report information they already possess on the identity, properties, production and management of their nanomaterials. Meanwhile, just three firms have agreed to participate in the in-depth programme, which could involve new testing. These organisations include two carbon nanotube producers - SouthWest NanoTechnologies and Unidym - as well as Swan Chemicals, a specialty chemicals manufacturer. 

The figures are far lower than the EPA’s January estimates, which indicated that it would receive 240 submissions from 180 companies under the basic programme, and 15 participants in the in-depth programme.

"The information being received appears to be entering a black hole" - Richard Denison

’EPA not only appears to have received limited information, but worse, EPA is saying almost nothing about it. The information being received appears to be entering a black hole,’ says Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). The group says many of the submissions received to date provide data only for a single nanomaterial, despite the strong likelihood that most of the companies are using several.

Industry warning

According to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a major US chemical industry trade association, uncertainties over the commitments involved with participation in the NMSP have prevented more firms from joining the initiative. In written comments issued in September 2007, the ACC’s Nanotechnology panel had advised the EPA that its figures on the number of companies that would participate in the NMSP were unrealistic and over-inflated. The panel also warned that the projections ’may wrongly be construed as de facto target goals against which to measure the NMSP’s success’.

"We told EPA in 2007 that their estimates were too high" - Tiffany Harrington

’We told EPA in 2007 that their estimates were too high,’ says Tiffany Harrington, an ACC spokeswoman. She says the EPA has since revised its estimates and expects to receive information under the basic programme for about 100 materials. ’They are close to that goal now and will likely exceed it,’ she adds. 

Additional action? 

For its part, the EPA says it never made any predictions about the number of companies and nanomaterials that would be involved with the NMSP. ’For purposes of the Paperwork Reduction Act we had to make an estimate of the possible maximal number of submissions in order to estimate burden hours,’ says EPA spokesman Dale Kemery. ’In no way was this intended to be criteria for success.’ 

On top of the submissions received to date, a further 11 companies have committed to submit information under the basic programme. And some big hitters have already signed on including Bayer Material Science, BASF, DuPont and General Electric. 

The EPA will continue accepting commitments to the NMSP until January 2010, as planned. The agency will then evaluate the information submitted to determine whether it needs to take any further action to ensure that it has access to crucial information about nanoscale materials. One possible step could be regulatory action under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The law was enacted by Congress in 1976 to allow the agency to track the 75,000 industrial chemicals produced or imported into the US.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA