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September 11, 2012

NRC Report on Science for Environmental Protection Examines Nanotechnology

Lynn L. Bergeson

On September 5, 2012, the National Research Council (NRC) released a pre-publication version of a report entitled Science for Environmental Protection:  The Road Ahead. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asked NRC to assess EPA’s overall capabilities “to develop, obtain, and use the best available scientific and technologic information and tools to meet persistent, emerging, and future mission challenges and opportunities.” The report discusses nanotechnology as an example of using emerging science to address regulatory issues and support decision-making. The Committee states that, to have the capacity to address emerging tools, technologies, and challenges, EPA “will need to have enough internal expertise to identify and collaborate with the expertise of all of its stakeholders in order to ask the right questions; determine what existing tools and strategies can be applied to answer those questions; determine the needs for new tools and strategies; develop, apply, and refine the new tools and strategies; and use the science to make recommendations based on hazards, exposures, and monitoring.” According to the report, the example of engineered nanomaterials “illustrates some of the problems and pitfalls of current approaches to emerging technologies.” While EPA provided early funding regarding the use of nanotechnology in remediation, the report states that it missed the opportunity to support research addressing the environmental health and safety of nanomaterials, pollution prevention in the production of nanomaterials, and the use of nanotechnology to prevent pollution. The reasons for the delay in early intervention include “insufficient federal agency leadership, emphasis, and policy regarding proactive rather than reactive approaches to safer design.” If EPA intends to promote and guide early intervention in the design and production of emerging chemicals, materials, and products, the report states, “it will need to commit to this effort beyond its regulatory role.”the report states, “it will need to commit to this effort beyond its regulatory role.”