Who's regulating nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology and its applications are so small that it can be hard to get your head around, but there are more than 1,000 products with nanomaterials already on the market, so we'd better get a handle on this quick. 

Nanoscale science and technology manipulate matter at the level of 1–300 nanometers (or billionths of a meter) and claim a seemingly amazing array of applications for medicine, technology, energy and food. Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Andrew Sheider's recent investigative series "The Nanotech Gamble" lays bare the potential health and environmental risks and extent to which largely unregulated nanotech products are already on the market, and in the food supply, without our knowledge.

Given the risks and speed with which nanotechnology is entering the marketplace, U.S. states are starting to explore what they can do in light of federal inaction. In testimony before the Minnesota state legislature, IATP's Steve Suppan outlines the regulatory holes at the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, which thus far have largely given nanotechnology a free ride. (You can listen to the entire April 14 hearing here.)

On April 15, the University of Minnesota hosted Governing Nanobiotechnology: Reinventing Oversight in the 21st Century. Academics, private industry, public interest representatives and government regulators grappled with the particular regulatory challenges posed by nanotechnology (videos of presentations coming soon).

As Steve points out in his testimony to state legislators, traditional regulation targets pollutants partially in terms of volume: that approach won't work for nanotechnology. "The quantity of nanomaterials that may cause environmental and/or public health harm will be much smaller in volume than what [...] has traditionally been inventoried. Prioritizing when and where to monitor pollutants will be a difficult task because potential risks of nanomaterials are not indicated simply by their size but also by their configuration and shape."

When scientific advancement overtakes our ability to regulate it's time to take a step back. The U.S. government's National Nanotechnology Initiative spent an estimated $1.8 billion developing new nanotech products in 2009. Little more than one percent of that taxpayer investment is dedicated to research to protect consumers and nanotechnology workers from potential environental, health and safety hazards of nanotechnology products. This is an unacceptably nano-sized start to a huge regulatory challenge.