Local options for US nanotech oversight

In the absence of what it would define as adequate federal oversight of the nanotechnology industry, the Washington DC-based Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) believes that state and local authorities should step in to fill the gap.

State and local governments in the US are already beginning to act when it comes to nanotech-related regulatory initiatives that go beyond what federal agencies are currently prepared to do. For example, the city of Berkeley in California requires handlers of engineered nanomaterials to submit toxicology reports.

A new report by environmental law expert Suellen Keiner argues that local authorities should take action. “In the absence of action at the federal level, other local and state governments may begin to explore their options for oversight of nanotechnology,” says Keiner in the introduction to her report.

Keiner and PEN director David Rejeski acknowledge that having a patchwork of local regulations is not an ideal situation, but they believe this could serve as a catalyst that forces federal authorities to act. “There is not a lot of innovation happening at the federal level,” says Rejeski. “In fact, a lot of activity has focused on rolling back regulatory powers, so the states here become prime drivers of change.”

We talk of local authorities, but the political and economic clout of some US states is enormous. California, for example, has the world’s 7th or 8th largest economy. And, in the case of the Kyoto Protocol governing atmospheric carbon emissions, we have recently seen a number of US states collaborate to implement its provisions in the face of federal government opposition.

Rejeski adds: “I also believe that historically the states and municipal governments can play a role as innovation labs where new approaches can be tried and evaluated, and lessons learned for broader federal approaches. The key here is making sure the experiments are evaluated.”

Further reading: “Room at the Bottom? Potential State and Local Strategies for Managing the Risks and Benefits of Nanotechnology”, Suellen Keiner, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, March 2008.

Article first published in Nanomaterials News.