By Jennifer Sass, Natural Resources Defense Council
Are there nanomaterials in your closet? If you don’t know the answer, you may soon—thanks to a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule.
Nanomaterials consist of smaller-than-microscopic chemicals, and they’re used in clothing, agrochemicals, sports equipment and all sorts of other consumer goods. Nanomaterials are used in products from all commercial sectors. (Look at this searchable Consumer Products Inventory for more detail on that).
EPA this week finalized its Rule on Nanomaterials Reporting and Recordkeeping. This gives the agency the power to require companies that manufacture, import, or process nanoscale chemicals to ”fess up” about these materials. It allows EPA to require these companies to disclose what they are making, how much, whether it is being released into the environment, and any information the company has on potential environmental or health effects.
This shouldn’t be a big deal for companies. It’s just one-time reporting for existing nanoscale materials, and one-time reporting for new discrete nanoscale materials before they are manufactured or processed. Companies are only required to disclose what they know! Consumers deserve to know, too.
More and more, the public wants to know the potential health and environmental impacts of chemicals—including nanomaterials—in consumer products. And that interest is driving demand for greater transparency regarding their use, and potential exposures.
I am especially pleased that EPA took recommendations from NRDC and coalition partners to reject industry pressure to exclude nanoclays and zinc oxide from the requirements of this rule. This is a pretty big deal. Nanoclays are being marketed as flame retardants (see, for example, Nanocor). While nanoclays appear to be less hazardous than the highly toxic halogenated flame retardant chemicals they are replacing, we don’t want to go from the frying pan into the unknown. Nano zinc oxide is used on cosmetics including spray-on sunscreens. We need more information about their use and exposure to be sure that they are safe.
In addition to no longer exempting nanoclays and zinc oxide, EPA incorporated another very important improvement that NRDC and coalition partners had recommended. EPA defined nanomaterials to include materials that have size-dependent properties. This is important because novel size can lead to novel properties and novel hazards. When physical and chemical properties are altered, it is likely that the toxic and hazardous potential is also altered. After all, diamond and the graphite in a pencil are both made entirely out of pure carbon, as are carbon nanotubes. But no one wants a graphite wedding ring. And, “long, thin carbon nanotubes showed the same effects as long, thin asbestos fibers” when inhaled by laboratory rodents in toxicology studies. Carbon may always be carbon, but size matters! We are glad that EPA recognized this in the rule.
My colleagues and I recently published the results of our research using the GreenScreen hazard assessment method to show both hazards and data gaps for conventional silver and nanosilver approved by EPA for commercial uses. To conduct hazard assessments, like the GreenScreens we published, we need reliable and publicly available information.
Bottom line: EPA’s Rule is an important tool to gather relevant data on nanomaterials to inform hazard assessment, regulatory decisions, and industrial product design and development.