One nanometer….1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Nanomaterials have been touted to have amazing properties, making them suitable for applications in medicine, electronics, and energy to name a few. But there are also potential safety concerns. As a new field, there is a limited amount of data on toxicity of nanoscale materials. And published studies seem to offer conflicting results. So how do we take the scientific data and use to it make policies that protect the public health?
In the United States, there are many regulatory agencies that could potentially deal with nanomaterials. Two that are already dealing with these issues are the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The FDA regulates cosmetics, including sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide nanoparticles. The FDA requires that products be safe, but has made no distinction between nanoscale materials and conventional size materials. The EPA regulates pesticide use under the 2006 Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, including nanoscale silver. Nanoscale silver is used as an antibacterial agent in many products, including socks and computer keyboards. The EPA requires companies to register products with nanoscale silver and is funding studies on nanparticle toxicity.
With a public health question such as the safety of nanomaterials, what role should the government play? Should the government label products and let consumers decide for themselves? Or take a more active role in regulating the use of new materials? And how the the different regulatory agencies coordinate their efforts?