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April 11, 2008

PEN Report Finds States Could Prompt Federal Action Regarding Nanotechnology

Lynn L. Bergeson

On April 9, 2008, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) released a report entitled Room at the Bottom? Potential State and Local Strategies for Managing the Risks and Benefits of Nanotechnology. According to the report, because of the slow pace of federal action to regulate development of nanotechnology, “there is ‘room at the bottom’ for state and local governments to move forward in pursuing regulatory and other oversight options.” Research for the report identified a number of states with laws promoting the nanotechnology industry or other initiatives encouraging research and development on nanotechnology applications. The report states that each of the 50 states is “home to at least one company, university, government laboratory, or other type of organization working with nanomaterials.”

The report discusses possible options for states and localities to oversee the environmental, health, and worker safety impacts of nanotechnology. According to the report, the following existing state authorities and experiences could be applied to nanotech oversight:

  • Air: At least 15 state agencies have adopted stringent air quality laws or regulations to fill a gap in federal standards, and at least 29 local air agencies are authorized to adopt more stringent air quality controls;
  • Waste: Several states have imposed standards for regulating metals in waste that are not covered by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations;
  • Water: State laws often offer substantial flexibility for regulating and controlling water discharges that may contain pollutants;
  • Labeling: States are free to adopt their own product labeling requirements, similar to those provided for toxic chemicals by California’s Proposition 65; and
  • Worker Safety: The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has approved plans for 21 states that enable them to adopt federal safety standards for workers in private industry.

The report identifies California, Michigan, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey as “the states that appear most able to launch initiatives for overseeing safe and responsible development of nanotechnology.” 

The report identifies the following four scenarios for potential action by states or localities to fill gaps in federal oversight and thereby initiate their own oversight of nanotechnology’s health, safety, and environmental impacts:

  1. Localities could require disclosure of potential health, safety, or environmental hazards;
  2. States or localities may choose to adopt standards that are expert-driven, such as the nanotechnology workplace standards being developed by ASTM International, the International Organization for Standardization, or other standards bodies;
  3. Stakeholders — such as state or local regulators in other programs, consumers, workers, and even nearby businesses — may play an important role in nanotechnology oversight when they exert pressure on states to control or prevent releases of nanomaterials; or
  4. One or more states may choose to collaborate to establish joint regional standards or approaches for overseeing the safe development of nanotechnology.