prod liab imageListening to the speakers at the American Bar Association section webinar on the subject of “Nano Governance:  The Current State of Federal, State, and International Regulation,” discussed in a recent blog post, I was struck by the proliferation of “alphabet soup” agencies and programs involved in deciding whether and how to regulate nanomaterials in the workplace, consumer products, and the environment.  The short list includes such well-known acronyms as FDA, EPA, OSHA, NIOSH, CPSC, NNI, TSCA, FIFRA, FHSA, REACH, and ISO (International Organization for Standardization), as well as many lesser known acronyms, such as SNUR (Significant New Use Rule), PPPA (Poison Prevention Packaging Act of 1970), CPSIA (Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act), OCSPP (EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention), NMSP (Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program), NICNAS (Australian National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme), WPMN (international Working Party on Manufactured Nanomaterials), and many similar legislation and agencies on the state level.

The good news is that nanotechnology is receiving much attention across the board from regulatory agencies.  The less good news is that the work of determining the health and safety effects of nanomaterials on humans and the environment, including ecological systems, is fragmented and slow.

The U.S. federal government, by necessity, is comprised of a web of agencies and programs, each with many jobs.  With so much work to be done, smaller and smaller groups are focusing on specific research and problem solving initiatives.  As the federal government is accustomed to doing in many areas of concern, efforts to coordinate agencies and programs devoting a fraction of their time to nanotechnology health and safety issues are being utilized.  One clearinghouse for the efforts across the government is the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).  Is that enough to prevent duplication of effort and resources and to encourage communication and progress?

The dilemma is not new.  It is at the foundation of all complex systems.  To get something done, the groundwork must be laid by a highly focused group.  As recommendations move along the regulatory channels, eventually (maybe) the work results in action by way of regulations or new/amended statutes.  Greater oversight and decision making at the top of the regulatory pyramid may sound more efficient, but the careful groundwork could be lost and the democratic principles on which our regulatory system is based (including publication and public comment) could be diminished.