The Environmental Protection Agency is the government’s best hope for protection against the hazards of nanomaterial, but an internal investigation says it can’t protect the public from these sub-atomic creations.
In a report issued last week, EPA’s Office of Inspector General said the agency has the statutory authority to regulate nanomaterials but currently lacks the environmental and human health exposure and toxicological data to do so.
Nanoparticles are being used in thousands of consumer products and industry experts estimate that hundreds of new or modified items are being added each month.
When the heavy, commercial use of nanoparticles first surfaced more than a decade ago, manufacturers intensely advertised that they were using these ingenious manmade structures in their products.
But that advertising angle dissipated rapidly as a growing number of studies showed that certain types nanoparticles can penetrate the human body through the skin, by inhalation, ingestion or absorption through the eyes.
Also, the IG’s report says because some carbon nanotubes resemble asbestos fibers, researchers are questioning whether they may lead to diseases such as mesothelioma.
The potential for harmful exposure to nanomaterials occurs throughout the life of nanoproducts, the IG reported, and this includes “the creation and manufacturing phase, and while the products are being used and at the end of the product’s useful life recycling, waste disposal or even incineration.
The report discusses potential consumer exposure from various products. For example, it cited sunscreen and the nano-titanium dioxide they contain and predicted that:
- When the sunscreen is rubbed on the skin, the individual consumer is at risk from dermal exposure.
- Washing off the sunscreen by use in pools, rivers or by bathing, can release the nanoparticles into the water supply when it can be ingested by the general population.
- Disposal of empty sunscreen bottles, tubes or containers into landfills or by incinerators can present a risk to the public of titanium- dioxide exposure by inhalation or ingestion.
EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention made numerous efforts to obtain information from manufacturers on production, importation, and use of nanomaterials and also the exposure; risk management practices; hazards; and physical and chemical properties.
The IG investigators said just 29 companies provided data that described or identified 123 nanomaterials.
Only four companies were willing to participate in the portion of the EPA program that encouraged them to develop test data and provide that information to EPA.
It is not that EPA didn’t try. It determined that nanomaterials will be regulated under existing statutes for chemicals, primarily the Toxic Substances Control Act, the regulatory backbone of the agency’s safety policies.
However, there are provisions under TSCA, industry can withhold vital information under statutes designed to protect claims of confidential business information. The IG report said that as much a 90 percent of the industry information was shrouded as confidential.