EPA – too little, too late on nanomaterial risks

The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program has recently come under fire from scientific and policy experts for its inconsistency and lack of regulatory teeth. Now joining the chorus of critics is Environmental Defense, a science and economics-centred advocacy group founded in the late 1960s as part of a campaign against the pesticide DDT.

Richard Denison

Environmental Defense was represented on the government advisory committee that two years ago urged the EPA to launch a nanomaterials stewardship programme. The organisation’s senior scientist Richard Denison recently testified at an EPA-hosted public meeting on the proposals. “Two years in the making, EPA’s tepid proposals have actually set back the clock,” said Denison. “As a government response to addressing the possible downsides of the nanotechnology revolution, it’s simply too little, too late.”

It should be noted that the EPA plans follow the UK government’s launch last year of a voluntary reporting programme. Just seven companies have so far signed up to the British scheme, along with two academic research bodies. Environmental Defense sees the same thing happening in the US unless the EPA is far more aggressive in protecting the public and environment from potential risks associated with engineered nanomaterials.

Here we discuss with Richard Denison his organisation’s criticism of the EPA proposals.

How can you say that proposals have ‘set back the clock’? The US appears to be in stasis as far as nanotechnology stewardship is concerned, and one could argue that the EU’s efforts are little better.

“Two years ago, EPA solicited (from its own multi-stakeholder federal advisory committee) and accepted a much more fleshed out proposal for a voluntary programme, coupled with regulatory backstops and clear timelines. That proposal was extensively publicly vetted. Fast-forward two years: EPA now issues a “concept” paper lacking these critical elements. We’re back to less than where we were two years ago – worse than stasis. I agree the EU is doing no better.”

Do you see voluntary reporting programmes as inherently worthless? In the UK, my impression is of a bunch of policymakers who sat down over a particularly good lunch, hammered out a few proposals, published them and left it at that. And that’s the problem – lack of follow up, not necessarily flawed policy.

“Voluntary programmes only work if there is a meaningful regulatory backstop and the will to use it. Even then, critical elements must be included, like specific timelines for signing up, providing data, etc. We submitted comments to the UK government along these lines when it sought comment on its proposal, but the needed specifics weren’t included. The results speak for themselves. Policymakers seem to act like ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ when designing these voluntary programmes. When participation lags, they then want to offer incentives that undermine the original purpose, such as overly broad protection for confidential business information, allowance for self-selective reporting, etc.”

Is the EPA acting as a coherent body on nanotechnology? I’m referring here to the Inventory Status document on the one hand, and the stewardship proposals and public consultation on the other.

“The way EPA sees it (in my view, of course), their decision as to what nanomaterials will be ‘new’ clarifies those materials that will be subject to EPA’s pre-market review (with all its weaknesses, but at least it’s something). The voluntary programme is intended to try to do something to deal with the remainder, the ‘existing’ nanomaterials. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, EPA’s authorities to require testing of existing substances, or to actually regulate them, are extremely limited, so they turn instead to voluntary approaches.”

The EPA was invited to comment on Environmental Defense’s critique of the nanomaterials stewardship proposals.

Richard Denison

Richard Denison is senior scientist with Environmental Defense, a non-profit group known for its work on issues including climate change, ecosystem restoration, oceans and human health. Environmental Defense is distinguished by its advocacy of market-based solutions to environmental challenges.

Denison manages Environmental Defense’s participation in the US High Production Volume Chemical Challenge Program. He also represents the organisation on the Chemicals Committee and Working Party on Manufactured Nanomaterials of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Denison was until recently a member of the National Pollution Prevention and Toxics Advisory Committee, which advises the Environmental Protection Agency’s toxics office.

Article first published in Nanomaterials News.