The United States Department of Defense’s Materials of Evolving Regulatory Interest Team (MERIT) recently announced that it added "nanomaterials" to its emerging contaminants watch list.  The DoD defines "emerging contaminants" as those chemicals and materials with a "perceived or real threat to human health or environment," an "evolving regulatory interest," and "either no peer reviewed health standard or an evolving standard."  In addition, an emerging contaminant may have "insufficient human health data/science," or "new detection limits," or "new exposure pathways."

The watch list however, is different from the emerging contaminants action list.  The watch list includes those materials that DoD believes have a "probable mission or budge impact."  DoD then monitors events surrounding the listed material while conducting "rough impact analysis."  Other materials found on the watch list include: tungsten and its alloys, lead, beryllium, dichlorobenzenes, and dioxins, among others.  "DoD places materials on the Watch List when they are identified through the scanning phase as potentially affecting one or more DoD business areas. While the exact nature and magnitude of the potential impacts are unknown, the Department has identified these materials as having a potential to affect DoD functions. As a result, DoD is conducting Phase I assessments for each of these materials."

The difference between the watch list and action list is that under the watch list the DoD monitors developments concerning the listed material while expending minimal resources.  If the material is upgraded to the action list,  DoD has determined that the material is likely to impact the department, and it performs detailed analysis on the material while possibly expending "significant" resources on understanding the material.  Other activities performed once a material is upgraded to the action list include undertaking risk management actions and pollution prevention efforts by DoD.

This listing of nanomaterials, without more information, is interesting for a number of reasons.  First, the DoD’s watch and action lists are selective in nature. There are only eighteen materials on these lists in total, so the addition of nanomaterials is significant.  We therefore see this action as a step towards regulation of nanotechnology by DoD’s recognition of nanomaterials as potentially impacting department operations and the environment.  Second, it is hard to know what DoD will be watching by posting "nanomaterials" on its watch list.  Given the different types and functions of nanomaterials and nanoparticles, a blanket listing is vague at best.  However, because the DoD elected to list nanomaterials at all is proof that federal agencies are increasing their focus on nanotechnology in general.

While this listing does not cause any regulatory actions to be taken by DoD, an upgrade to the action list could certainly mean a significant change in course as to how one of the country’s largest agencies addresses nanotechnology.