Nano hazards: Is a new regulatory scheme required?

Technology Review interviews Richard Denison of environmental advocacy group Environmental Defense on how government should handle the new risks of nanotech.

Environmental Defense was founded 30 years ago to force action on DDT, and the group's chief scientist Richard Denison has a unique, longterm perspective on the issue of how government regulates and legislates environment dangers. So in the wake of revelations about the dangers of nano, Technology Review talked to Denison about how government deals with the latest cutting edge of technology. He notes that government regulation may have to move more upstream, better identifying problems before products are released. In other words, identify the problems with Vioxx before millions of people take them.

RD: I think it's useful, although probably optimistic, to be talking about an entirely new law. Useful in the sense that it probably provides a focal point for the debate. Optimistic in the sense that getting any new environmental legislation adopted in this political climate is probably unlikely, to say the least. But I do think that acknowledging that there are serious, systemic gaps in the current system is helpful.

TR: What are some of these gaps?

RD: The example of cosmetics is a very good one. Some of the first applications of nanomaterials are in the realm of cosmetics, and there's no clear FDA authority to even look at those issues prior to market introduction.

So perhaps a new regulatory approach is needed for the 21st century, as more and more products are essentially technological in nature. 

We have an ethic in this country that has put the burden by and large on government to prove harm. The problem with that system -- and it's one that's being increasingly recognized by companies -- is that once those problems come to light, the liability, the reputational damage, and other problems that companies end up facing and paying for can often dwarf the cost of what it would have taken to do a better characterization up front and understand the risks.

Even those companies that think they can totally manage the risks of their material, some of them see a need for, ultimately, a regulatory program that provides some assurance to the public -- because it may take only one bad apple to spoil the barrel.

 

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