prod liab imageRecently, the President’s Cancer Panel released its report, “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now,” which made the bold and distressing statement that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”  Currently, there are approximately 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States many of which are likely carcinogens that are used by most Americans on a regular basis in their daily lives.  The risks of these carcinogenic substances have a significantly greater impact on children than adults.  The Panel observed that most of these chemicals are “un- or understudied and largely unregulated.”  Among other things, the Panel concluded that research on the environmental causes of cancer has taken a back seat to research on the genetic and molecular mechanisms that cause cancer.  Research into the environmental causes of cancer has been given low priority and insufficient funding, they say.

 What does this report on chemicals and cancer have to do with nanotechnology?  The long-term health risks of nanotechnology are currently unknown.  If, as the Panel states, only a few hundred of those existing 80,000 chemicals have been tested for safety to date, where does that put emerging technologies such as nanotechnology?  Right now, at the bottom of the list.  And if the Panel’s recommendations are implemented, it is likely that available resources will be consumed by studying a fraction of those 80,000 chemicals.

 The Panel identified the following barriers to effective regulation of environmental contaminants:

 “(1) inadequate funding and insufficient staffing,

(2)   fragmented and overlapping authorities coupled with uneven and decentralized enforcement,

(3)   excessive regulatory complexity,

(4)   weak laws and regulations, and

(5)   undue industry influence.”

 It is worth considering the degree to which each one of these barriers to effective regulation may apply to nanotechnology, either now or in the coming months and years.

 Given this state of affairs, what is to be done?  One might reasonably ask:  Why should the public bear the burden of proving that an environmental exposure is harmful?  Would it make more sense to have industry – those developing the substances and placing them on the market – conduct the studies on the human environmental impacts in the first instance?  When it comes to consumer products, it seems that it is only after the fact – after harm has come to persons exposed – that the requisite depth of study is conducted.

 This is an ongoing discussion.  I will be examining other aspects of the Panel’s report in relation to nanotechnology in future posts.

 The report may be found at