RFF's Terry Davies urges immediate action on revised EPA regulation of nanotechnology

Dozens of new products are created each month through the use of nanotechnology, but there are still many unanswered questions relating to this technology and its effects. Is the nanotechnology industry regulated adequately? How should government be responding? Do we know enough about the potential health risks or environmental damage this technology could cause? During today's OnPoint, Terry Davies, senior adviser at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies and a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, discusses his new report which seeks to provide an outline of how U.S. EPA and other federal agencies should revise their regulatory policies relating to nanotechnology. In the report, "EPA and Nanotechnology: Oversight for the 21st Century," Davies says it is imperative that EPA change regulations and laws relating to nanotechnology because of its widespread exposure. Davies, a former EPA assistant administrator for policy, planning and evaluation, also explains why he believes the promise of nanotechnology outweighs the potential risks.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Terry Davies, the senior adviser at the Project on the Emerging Nanotechnologies and a senior fellow at Resources for the Future. Terry is also a former EPA assistant administrator for policy planning and evaluation. Terry thanks for coming back on the show.

Terry Davies: My pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: You recently authored a new report on nanotechnology entitled "EPA and Nanotechnology: Oversight for the 21st Century." It basically provides a roadmap for the EPA to better handle the challenges posed by nanotechnology. Why don't you feel that the federal government has handled nanotechnology adequately up until this point?

Terry Davies: Basically because it's not equipped and the existing laws and institutions and scientific knowledge, and resources too for that matter, all of those things are inadequate to deal with nanotechnology and you have to change the regulations. You have to change the laws. You have to learn a lot more scientifically. There are a whole lot of changes that need to be made.

Monica Trauzzi: There's a lot that we don't know about nanotechnology. Is it appropriate to put so many resources into something that we're not entirely sure about? We're not entirely sure that it's going to be all that good for the environment or for people's health.

Terry Davies: Well, when you say so many resources, I mean we are putting a lot of resources into developing the technology and applying it, and your question is a relevant one. But I think what outweighs the concerns about the possible adverse effects, and those concerns are real, and those are what I'm concerned about, nevertheless, the promise of the technology, the good things that it can do are so extraordinary that, yes, I think it is worth putting that money into it.

Monica Trauzzi: The administration has said, actually the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology, John Marburger, he has said that he is satisfied with the pace of nanotoxicity research because nanotechnology is in its infancy. So do you think that this report is going to affect the administration at all?

Terry Davies: I would hope so. I like to think that the first report I did last year had some impact in terms of focusing people on the potential downside of the technology and, therefore, things that we had to worry about. Marburger's statement is very typical of the statements made by officials in the current administration. The current administration's position is that everything is pretty perfect. The appropriations are just right. The laws are just right and don't need changing. The regulations are just right. Everything is beautiful and perfect. I disagree with that. I think clearly the American people are not being adequately protected in terms of not having an adequate oversight mechanism to look at the technology and say what are the things we should be worrying about? What kinds of testing do we need to do? How do the possible dangers vary over different kinds of nanoparticles and nanomaterials? There are just a whole set of questions that need to be answered and, as I said earlier, a lot of changes that need to be made in places like EPA to allow them to deal adequately with nano.

Monica Trauzzi: You are responsible for the original Toxic Substances Control Act. How should that be revised currently for nanotechnology?

Terry Davies: The act is currently really a very weak act and we could spend the rest of the time we have detailing the shortcomings of the Toxic Substances Act. But just to illustrate one, and perhaps the most important shortcoming, the act pretty much prohibits EPA from getting the information it needs about a new material, information it needs to determine whether it's a danger or not, unless it can show that it's a danger. Well, that's a catch-22, because if you can show it's a danger than you don't need the data and if you don't have the data you can't show it's a danger. So, in effect, EPA is handicapped right from the beginning in terms of trying to determine whether or not a particular material or substance is a problem.

Monica Trauzzi: There isn't real consensus on how to define nanotechnology yet. So how do you regulate something that isn't clearly defined?

Terry Davies: Again, the question of definition is a subject we could take a great deal of time over and very quickly get bogged down into technicalities. But, basically, there's enough agreement about the definition to control it and to have an oversight system. I mean the fundamental definition is it's any material that is 100 nanometers or less than one dimension. That's the definition that the National Nanotechnology Initiative uses and that's really generally accepted. Now, as I say, there are a lot of modifiers, fine points, questions that could be raised, but that's good enough to get started with. So I don't think definition is an obstacle that can't be overcome.

Monica Trauzzi: What kind of timeline are we looking at here for the EPA to actually make some changes to their regulatory policies? I mean how imperative is it?

Terry Davies: I think it's very imperative. My report uses the word now quite frequently because I think the situation is pretty urgent. People are being exposed to nanomaterials now and they're being exposed very directly. This stuff is in cosmetics. It's in toothpaste. It's in food. It's in clothing. So there is direct exposure now and the rate at which nanomaterials are being incorporated into consumer products is very fast. The Wilson Center keeps in an inventory of consumer products that are labeled nano and that inventory is growing at the rate of one new product each day just about now. So that gives you some indication of just how fast this new technology is being adopted.

Monica Trauzzi: Do you think that the average American understands what nanotechnology is and what some of the adverse effects of it could be? Should the EPA also be reaching out to the consumer and educating them?

Terry Davies: Yes. I mean education is definitely needed. And, in fairness, the government is doing various things. The EPA has done some educational efforts. The National Science Foundation has done things like sponsor museum exhibitions on nanotechnology. But, again, a lot more is needed. And every time the polls are taken asking people about nanotechnology somewhere around 70 to 80 percent of the people clearly don't have any idea what it is. So, yes, education is badly needed.

Monica Trauzzi: How have the EPA and administration responded to this report so far? Have you heard anything from them?

Terry Davies: Not really. I mean we briefed EPA Monday, so really it's too early to get any reaction from them.

Monica Trauzzi: And it's not just EPA, but EPA should be coordinating with other federal agencies as well. How should that be happening?

Terry Davies: Well, it's not just other federal agencies. I mean the report really has sort of three agendas, and one is an agenda for changes that are needed within EPA. But there is also an agenda for formulating a new oversight system that could be administered by EPA, but, as you say, would require other agencies as well. And then the last chapter of the report contains 26 specific recommendations for action, and only about five or six of those are just EPA. The rest of them involve Congress, the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the president, other agencies and so forth.

Monica Trauzzi: You're certainly not the only one who's calling for increased oversight. There have been several reports published, environmental groups coming out and saying the same thing. How important will nanotech be in our future?

Terry Davies: I think it will change everything that we do. I mean it will change the food we eat, the clothing to wear, the houses we live in, the way we generate energy. Almost every aspect of life is going to be changed by nano.

Monica Trauzzi: In the report you say that nanotechnology can also be a catalyst for revitalization of EPA. What other issues, besides the nanotechnology issue, does EPA have currently that need some reassessing?

Terry Davies: Well, the most obvious one I guess is climate change. And, in fact, when you look at climate change and nanotechnology they share a lot of characteristics in terms of challenging the way EPA is currently set up. They both need a lot more scientific information than we have, they both are international in scope and are not going to be solved by the United States alone, they both transcend the sort of traditional air/water/land programs that EPA has operated by. So they require EPA to take an integrated approach, which it just really is not equipped to do at this point. So I think climate change is the other major new challenge that the agency faces, but there will be more. There are going to be more coming down.

Monica Trauzzi: And what would your recommendation be to EPA for handling the ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA, the Supreme Court ruling?

Terry Davies: I mean I guess if I were the EPA administrator and had a free hand I would regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act as the court suggested. But it looks like this administration is determined not to do that, at least not to do that anytime in the near future. But, to me, the court handed EPA a major handle and a real opportunity to begin to get serious about climate change.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to end it right there. Thanks for coming that on the show.

Terry Davies: OK, thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



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