Resources For the Future and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars co-sponsored yesterday’s panel discussion "Nanotechnology and Nature: Can We Reduce Any Risks and Still Reap the Benefits?" at RFF’s offices here in Washington, D.C.  Panel speakers were Terry Davies (RFF), Andrew Maynard (WWC), Celia Merzbacher (White House), Marti Otto (EPA), and Jennifer Sass (NRDC).

Terry Davies initiated the panel discussion by providing some background information on nanotechnology, discussing the broadness and depth of the technology, and highlighting the dilemma of balancing nanotechnology’s potential benefits against any potential EHS risks.  He indicated that the industry must balance the potential costs of nanotechnology — which he described a possibility/probability of adverse health effects arising from the use of nanomaterials in some instances against the purported benefits of the technology.  Davies also referenced the WWC’s catalog of consumer products that purport to employ nanotechnology, and said that the number of consumer products already claiming to employ nanotechnology shows that this controversy is not something to leave for discussion in the distant future.  He also defined the basic issue at the core of this dilemma as not whether one is "for" or "against" nanotechnology, but rather the degree of caution that should be exercised as the technology is put to commercial uses.  To explain his point, Davies presented a nanotechnology policy regulatory continuum familiar to those monitoring WWC’s recent work — a total moratorium at one end of the spectrum all the way to absolutely no-new regulation at the other.  In between are the additional choices of a partial moratorium, totally new legislation, and "tinkering" with existing regulations.  Davies should be credited with not forcing his own views on a captive audience, instead referring interested parties to his paper recently published by WWC — "EPA and Nanotechnology Oversight for the 21st Century."

Andrew Maynard then provided general background information on what nanotechnology is, its potential benefits, and its potential risks.  Regarding potential benefits, Maynard mentioned four applications: stronger, lighter materials; improved energy storage and generation; provision of clean water; and dramatic improvements in medicine.  After discussing benefits, Maynard then turned to an EHS risk theme.  He noted that the industry faced two types of risks — potentially real EHS risks which are being investigated by scientists and government, and public perception of these alleged risks which needs to be equally considered.  Maynard also referenced the July Consumer Report article regarding nanotechnology.  He noted that the magazine compared 8 nano-based sunscreens to several "traditional" sunscreens which supposedly did not contain nanoparticles.  The magazine found "traditional" sunscreens worked just as well as the nano-variety and concluded that nano-based sunscreens were not needed. 

Celia Merzbacher from the White House spoke next and did a nice job of outlining federal spending and research priorities both on R&D and into the potential EHS ramifications of nanotechnology.  Merzbacher highlighted the federal government’s requested budget for nano-research in 2008 — $1.5 billion total, with $60 million of this amount requested for EHS research.  She also covered some of the beneficial uses of nanotechnology including solar cells, clean water technologies, thermoelectric materials, energy storage, fuel cell technology, catalysts, and nano-manufacturing.  She explained the US government currently spends about 1/4 of the total world wide government funds allocated to nano-RD and is the world-leader in this regard.  She closed her presentation with some examples of the EHS research being conducted by NIOSH and the National Cancer Institute, and explained how there is a parallel need for industry sponsored research regarding EHS implications of its own products and also for research collaboration by governments worldwide.

Marti Otto spoke next regarding EPA’s research into various applications and implications of nanotechnology.  She provided some interesting slides showing how EPA has funded various nano-related research over time, and also highlighting EPA’s major position papers including its February 2007 nanotechnology white paper.  Otto then described several beneficial environmental applications of nanotechnology under consideration by EPA including: use in remediation of hazardous wastes; green manufacturing; energy conservation and storage; real time monitoring and detection of pollutants in the environment; homeland security research; nano water filtration; and nano smoke stack emission mitigation.  Of particular note, she mentioned EPA’s efforts to use nanoscale zero valent iron particles to clean underground water plumes that may be contaminated with heavy metals.

Jennifer Sass closed the panel by advocating a limited moratorium on the use of nanomaterials in certain contexts.  In keeping with NRDC’s recent position paper (which we previously discussed here), she recommended prohibiting the use of "unsafe" or untested nanoparticles in consumer applications; a complete nano-life-cycle assessment before consumer products are introduced to the public; the full and meaningful participation of the public and workers in any regulatory scheme; and addressing social and ethical considerations at the same time and at the same pace at which the business side of the industry is developing.  Additionally, while we disagree with her underlying premise, Ms. Sass also issued a heartfelt plea to take nanotechnology policy decision making "out of the corporate boardrooms" and into the public domain.