Category: EPA

asbestos-fibreEarlier, I wrote about some potential similarities between asbestos personal injury litigation and the litigation that is certain to come over nanoparticles and human health.  I will be writing on and off about this topic going forward as well.  I can’t emphasize enough the urgency of avoiding another disaster like asbestos litigation, which has clogged the courts since the 1970s.

For example, engineered nanomaterials are being placed into building materials.  In the first instance, these materials are being designed and manufactured in the primary workplace environment, thus potentially exposing workers to hazards about which little or nothing is known.  Another set of workers, those using the building materials in the secondary workplace, run the risk of exposure to potentially harmful substances.

The history of asbestos shows that the early studies were conducted on asbestos textile factory workers, but that meaningful studies on workers out in the field who were installing the materials lagged far behind.  Then, when the studies began to raise danger signals, the industry ignored those signals until the specter of mass litigation and government regulation forced recognition.  By then it was too late.

Nanomaterials present some of the same workplace issues, particularly when used in building materials.  The hazards of the primary workplace may be different from those in the secondary workplace.  Studies must be conducted on both types of environments.

Further, there is a third concern, which also mirrors the asbestos experience.  At some point down the line (years or decades), the anticipated life of the materials will expire, just as asbestos insulation materials have done.  At that point, degeneration of the materials could put nanomaterials into the environment to a degree that could endanger the safety of persons in the vicinity.

In the case of nanomaterials, do we know any of this for certain?  No.  But at the present time we know almost nothing about any of these safety issues.  In December, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) proposed a workplace exposure limit for carbon nanotubes and nanofibers.  This is a start; but without hard data, it is really only a guess.  And it is not necessarily consistent with limits for other substances.

While the industries creating and using nanomaterials will likely take seriously the lessons of asbestos, more should be done up front to ascertain the seriousness and scope of the hazards that the materials may present.  Now is the time.  If the hazards outrun the studies, the finish line will be litigation.

nano 3On November 22, 2010, EPA submitted a proposed rule under Section 8(a) of TSCA to the Office of Management and Budget for its review.  The proposed rule includes reporting requirements for manufacturers of nanoscale materials and could be published in the Federal Register for public comment in December.

 The first of three proposed rules expected in 2011, this proposed rule would require disclosure of information on manufacturing and processing, as well as on exposure and release of nanomaterials.  This is merely a prelude to any actual regulation of the industries and processes making use of nanotechnology.  It is a critical step toward reducing risks to human health and the environment.  But it also highlights the fact that regulation of nanomaterials is a long, slow process that may not yield satisfactory results for many years.

 In September, an EPA representative told members of the nanomaterials industry, “We are at the stage where we really don’t have a clear idea of how to manage risk. . . . The more information we can collect through regulation—on what is being manufactured, toxicity data, and the development of the proper protocols for measuring toxic effects of the nanomaterial—the better off we will be to manage the risk and demonstrate to the American people we have a handle on the issue.”

 The current proposal can be seen as early steps in risk assessment, but far from the risk management eventually envisioned by EPA.

The European Union may be further ahead.  On November 24, 2010, the European Parliament voted to extend its restriction on many hazardous substances to most electrical and electronic products, but stopped short of imposing a restriction on nanosilver and carbon nanotubes.  Observers say that it is likely that these substances will be incorporated into the law when the law comes up for review in three years.  Thus, the EU may be heading toward management of the risks of nanotechnology more quickly than the U.S.

 Even so, why so slow?  Regulators should get moving on resolving obstacles such as the scope of nanoscale definitions, deciding how much data is enough before effective regulation may be accomplished, and whether small businesses warrant an exception to regulation.


Sources (all by BNA subscription):

225 BNA Daily Env’t Rptr. A-6 (Nov. 24, 2010)

34 BNA Chemical Reg. Rptr. 1149 (Nov. 24, 2010)

34 BNA Chemical Reg. Rptr 960 (Oct. 4, 2010)

The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) Strategic Plan Draft was posted at for public comment on November 1, 2010.  The NNI was launched in 2001 with 8 agencies and now consists of the nanotechnology-related activities of 25 agencies.  Fifteen of these agencies have R&D budgets related to nanotechnology.

In reflecting on the 10-year history of U.S. nanotechnology research and development, the NNI Draft highlights its work as having “established a thriving nanotechnology R&D environment, laid the crucial groundwork for developing commercial applications and scaling up production, and created demand for many new nanotechnology and manufacturing jobs in the near-term.”  (Draft, p. 1)  Looking to the future, the NNI notes that nanotechnology R&D is “far from full realization.”  (Draft, p. 2)  The goals of the NNI continue to be broad:  continued development of R&D; developing the technologies into products for commercial and consumer use; and developing the physical and human resources to achieve these goals.

Goal 4 of the Draft Strategic Plan is “Support responsible development of nanotechnology,” including the twin goals of understanding and managing the risks of the technologies.  Among the NNI participating agencies in 2010 are EPA, FDA, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The NNI Draft Strategic Plan focuses directly on the benefits of nanotechnology, rather than the risks.  But many of the participating agencies – and many more – need to be involved on the risk side of the proverbial risk-benefit analysis.  This is happening, as reported previously in posts on this blog ranging from FIFRA to TSCA to the FDCA.

 But equally important is the need for communication and coordination on both the benefits and risks of nanotechnology.  And that extends beyond governmental regulation to businesses and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Aside from governmental action, various voluntary initiatives and partnerships have emerged.  A report out of the Woodrow Wilson  International Center for Scholars, “Voluntary Initiatives, Regulation, and Nanotechnology Oversight:  Charting a Path,” gives an overview of the initiatives – some publicly sponsored, some developed by business, and some representing joint business-NGO partnerships.  These initiatives have the common, though separate, goal of developing a strategy to oversee environmental, health, and safety risks raised by nanomaterials.  The report is available at

Three initiatives discussed in some detail in the report are:

 ●  “Nano Risk Framework,” jointly developed by duPont and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)

 ●  “Responsible Nano Code,” sponsored by stakeholders from the United Kingdom

 ●  “Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program,” developed by EPA

 The report critically analyzes these specific initiatives – as well as others more generally – and concludes that they have a welcome role in the future of nanotechnology safety and health efforts.

The ideal world does not exist, of course.  But in this world, a strategy that incorporates the risks and benefits of these developing technologies and brings together as many varied interests as possible representing all affected parties, including the environment, is warranted.  It can provide needed checks and balances along the way.

Lab beakerThe New York Times recently published an article reviewing the state of research on the adverse health effects of the chemical bisphenol-A (known as BPA), which is found in plastic used for many consumer products.  BPA is a hot topic right now, both in the health and political arenas.  The reason is that BPA has been shown in some studies to mimic the hormone estrogen, which is considered an “endocrine disruptor” capable of causing harm to humans.  But whether BPA, in mimicking estrogen, actually causes harm has yet to be determined.

Some of the concerns about conducting and interpreting the health studies on BPA are instructive as we go forward with studies on the health effects of nanosubstances.

 Some particularly instructive observations in the article are:

 1.  Some scientists have noted the conflicting results in existing studies.  Some have suggested that the inconsistent results are, at least in part, a function of different laboratories studying the chemical in different ways:  “Animal strains, doses, methods of exposure and the results being measured – as crude as body weight or as delicate as gene expression in the brain – have all varied, making it difficult or impossible to reconcile the findings,” according to the article.

 2.  Even when experiments appear to be conducted identically, the interpretations may vary among scientists of different disciplines, using different standards.

 3.  In studying BPA and many other chemicals and substances (including nanosubstances), it is particularly important to be aware of the different ways the substance may act on adults, children, and fetuses exposed in utero.  Moreover, adverse impacts on fetuses include not just fetal development; a person born with fetal exposure could develop future exposure-related health problems during his or her lifetime.

 4.  Private laboratories tend to be the first to use new advances in research, while the government researchers tend to lag behind.  It is not clear which type is likely to yield the more accurate results – the new techniques or the tried-and-true techniques.

 In thinking about studying the health effects of nanotechnology-based substances, it is important to keep in mind these points.  Because nanosubstances are available for so many and varied uses, determining the actual health impacts will take time, money, and a coordinated effort among scientific disciplines.

Now is the time to move forward with just such a coordinated effort.

 The article on BPA is available at:



What do the Gulf oil spill, the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and nanotechnology have in common?  On the surface, it would seem to be nothing.  But all three involve responses to potential health and environmental threats that are instructive about how we as a society respond to such threats.  Collectively, they raise some important issues regarding how our society views health and environmental risks in general.

 Don’t get me wrong.  In no way am I suggesting that nanotechnology is comparable to the disasters at Ground Zero or in the Gulf.  Rather, I am asking that you look at how government and funded research institutes manage long-term health and environmental effects that occur as a result of chronic low-dose exposures over time.  The potential health hazards of nanotechnology fall into the long-term category.  We don’t expect to see any acute health problems associated with nanotechnology, but we should be concerned about long-term exposures, and existing efforts to study the effects should be expanded.

 Let’s contrast what happens when there is a disaster.

 On August 19, 2010, administration officials reaffirmed their commitment to the recovery and restoration of the Gulf in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and the subsequent movement of oil into the waters and the ecosystems of the Gulf.  The media outlets have been full of video, photographs, and articles about the efforts of many organizations, companies, and governmental entities to clean up and minimize the potential harm to natural resources, the environment, and all forms of life.

 Not so long ago, something similar went on at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Early on, the focus of efforts at Ground Zero was on the search for survivors.  On September 29, the focus turned to recovery and cleanup, including removal of debris.  But even before that date, the federal, state, and local governments were engaged in managing the environmental disaster that resulted from the release of hazardous substances into the air, including asbestos, silica, lead, mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxin, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), Freon, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), to name a few.  Workers from FDNY, NYPD, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, emergency medical personnel, and a host of volunteers worked at the site.

 It is easy to assign massive resources to the acute phase of a disaster, but much harder to sustain interest and funding as time goes on.  Eventually the media will move on to other stories now that the Macondo well is just about sealed, as it eventually did when the cleanup at Ground Zero was completed.  Funds have been established to make payments, lawsuits commenced.  But what lingers is the reality of long-term health effects that could emerge over time – ecosystem damage or cancer or other health risks.  Society has a certain myopia about such things.  Perhaps it is human nature to not want to think about the health problems that could arise years down the line.

 The protracted task of developing valid scientific studies on the health effects of any exposures, including nanoparticles, and interpreting the results is as essential as responding to the acute phase of a disaster.  Disasters like the Gulf spill and 9/11 suggest a kind of false dichotomy – that acute harms are more worthy of recognition in the law than chronic long-term harms.  The long-term harms may seem less urgent, but there is nevertheless an urgency about them as well.

 For example, following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, no concerted effort was made to assess the health effects of the cleanup on workers.  Years later, surveys told the story of respiratory and neurological illness.  This month, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences announced it would begin a study of the potential health effects of exposures of workers and residents as a result of the Gulf oil spill.  Even in the 9/11 context, where health screenings of Ground Zero responders have been ongoing since 2002, and a data base has been established, acceptable compensation has come nearly a decade after the disaster.  The law is slower to recognize the harms from chronic exposures, and slower to act to both compensate the injured and prevent further harm.  Clearly, some of this is a result of symptoms and other harms emerging over time.  But this is all the more reason to be vigilant and investigative from the start.

 Far from the spotlight of a high-profile disaster, and in the absence of a clearly exposed population to screen, studies on the health and environmental effects of exposures to substances about which we know little is essential.

 As mentioned, nanotechnology is not a disaster.  Far from it.  It is a means for creating better medical therapies, making some of our technology perform better, and offering consumers desirable features in everyday products such as textiles and cosmetics.  But this does not eliminate the need to make a concerted effort to study the long-term health and environmental effects of nanoparticles and nanomaterials.  No matter how long it takes; no matter how far out of the spotlight.

 For those interested in knowing more about the toxic aftermath of Ground Zero, see my article, Toxic Torts at Ground Zero, 39 ARIZ. ST. L.J. 383 (2007).

On the need for studies of the health impact of the Gulf spill, see

Gina M. Solomon & Sarah Janssen, Health Effects of the Gulf Oil Spill, J.A.M.A. (Aug. 16, 2010), available at