Update: Group calls for environmental regulation of nanotech

Nantotechnology manufacturing, which involves particles that are known to cause diseases, is largely unregulated for environmental issues

Nanotechnology manufacturers need stricter regulations to avoid environmental problems and diseases like cancer, according to a report released by an environmental advocacy group.

The nanotechnology manufacturing process is largely unregulated for environmental issues, but could cause several problems, according to the report by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. The group called for regulation of nanotech manufacturing particularly in Silicon Valley, where nanotech has emerged as a major industry, with more than 110 nanotech companies and research facilities.

"Small particles are associated with well-known diseases such as asbestosis and silicosis, granulomas, and lung inflammation," the report says. "Based on this knowledge, we can expect that the inhalation of particles as small as engineered nanoparticles could be hazardous."

Members of the NanoBusiness Alliance, a nanotech trade group, have been working with environmental groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address any concerns, and the group has called for more U.S. funding for research into the health and environmental effects of nanotech, said Sean Murdock, the alliance's executive director.

The toxics coalition uses "loaded language" and "abstract fear-mongering" discussions about cancer and other diseases in an attempt to raise concerns about nanomaterials, Murdock said. "There's nothing out there that suggests [nanomaterials] are intrinsically more dangerous" than other manufacturing materials, he said.

The toxics group seems to be calling on the nanotech industry to "prove a negative," to prove that no nanomaterial will ever be dangerous, he added. He instead called for a constructive dialogue about nanotech and possible environmental impacts.

Without stronger regulation, California and other areas with nanotech manufacturing could face toxic cleanup problems similar to problems with toxic spills reported in Santa Clara County, California, by IBM and Fairchild Camera in 1981, the group said.

Lawmakers "just need to learn from our [past] lessons," said Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "There's no reason we should repeat them."

Some nanomaterials can cause brain damage in fish or be breathed deep into lungs, although many of the health effects are unknown, the group said. The material nanosilver could cause similar problems as silver in water environments, which has caused reproduction problems with some clams, the group said.

Most U.S. environmental regulations cover companies that generate large amounts of materials, in some cases more than 10,000 gallons of a regulated material, said Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. But nanotechnology plants won't generate that volume, with a diameter of a human hair about 75,000 nanometers. Nanoparticles generally are smaller than 100 nanometers in size.

"We're looking at a new technology, and we have a 40- or 50-year-old environmental policy framework," Davis said. "It's archaic. It's designed to regulate chemicals that were developed 100 years ago."

The U.S. government's National Nanotechnology Initiative, which helps fund nanotech research, has a budget of $1.44 billion in 2008, the group noted. But only 4 percent of that budget is targeted at health and environmental implications, the report said. "It's really a lack of accountability on the federal government, because of the funding structure," Davis added.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition called for new environmental regulations specifically focused on nanotech and labeling requirements on products containing nanotech. The group also suggested that local governments pass laws requiring nanotech companies to disclose what chemicals they use in their manufacturing processes.

This story was updated on April 2, 2008

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