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Report Calls For New Nanotech Laws

Old regulations that weren't designed to be applied specifically to nanotechnology could result in a public backlash, loss of markets, and potential financial liabilities, a new study says.

WASHINGTON — Controlling the adverse environmental impact of nanotechnology will be difficult under existing U.S. regulations and may require new laws to manage potential risks, a new study warns.

The report released Wednesday (Jan. 11) by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars acknowledged that little is known about the possible adverse effects of nanotechnology. The report's author, J. Clarence Davies, nevertheless stressed that a new regulatory regime is needed before nano-devices can be released into the environment.

"We know enough to recognize that there needs to be some type of governmental oversight to ensure that public health and safety are not adversely affected," the report warns.

Among it findings and recommendations were:

  • Existing laws like the Toxic Substances Control Act do not provide a basis for addressing new enviromental concerns raised by nanotechnology.

  • A new law may be needed to manage the potential risks of nanotechnology. "The law would require manufacturers to submit a sustainability plan which would show that the product will not present an unacceptable risk," the report said.

    The report by the Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies also calls for more resources to manage potential adverse effects. These include more research, tax breaks, acquisition programs and regulatory incentives.

    "Managing the Effects of Nanotechnology" warned that the government would struggle to apply existing laws that weren't designed for the new technology. As a result, there could be a public backlash, loss of markets and potential financial liabilities. The global nanotechnology industry is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2015, according to the National Science Foundation, with the U.S. investing about $3 billion annually in R&D. "It is the right time to come up with the right regulatory framework for nanotechnology — a framework that encourages initiative and innovation, while also protecting the public and the environment," said Davies, former assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    In October 2005, the agency approved the manufacturer of a new type of carbon nanotube under the "low release and exposure exemption" of toxic substances law.

    While some regulations may work for nanotechnology — for example, the Food and Drug Administration has the authority to review and regulate nanotechnology applications in the areas of drugs and biomedical devices — Davies warned that "most of the existing applicable programs are seriously flawed, lack resources, and require new thinking and funding."

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