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Business Costs & Regulation

Nanotech Firms Fear New EPA Regs

An open-ended rule-making authority for the feds sounds like too much to bear for some outfits.

New federal rules may put the brakes on nanotechnology, molecular level engineering with the potential to revolutionize manufacturing. Under new regulations expected to be finalized in 2010, the agency will classify single-walled and multiwalled carbon nanotubes as potentially toxic substances. Firms that manufacture these nanoparticles, distribute them or use them in making other goods will have to notify the Environmental Protection Agency at least 90 days before they begin operations. The agency could then take steps ranging from requiring better ventilation systems or better protective gear for workers to limiting or banning the activity altogether.

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Though this won’t be the first time the EPA has sought to regulate nanoparticles, the new regulations are likely to have far more significant consequences than previous efforts. “I don’t think there’s any future of nanotechnology that doesn’t have carbon-based nanostructures at its core,” says Vicki Colvin, director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University.

The molecular structures of carbon nanotubes make them potentially hundreds of times stronger than steel, far lighter in weight and far more conductive. Prospective applications include electronics, optics, biotechnology, defense and construction materials.

But the same durability and complexity that make carbon nanotubes such a wonder material also mean they do not degrade naturally. Once inhaled, they may persist in the body for years. An increasing body of scientific research suggests that long-term exposure to carbon nanotubes can cause severe lung damage or lung cancer, in much the same way as asbestos. While such risks are not yet proven, manufacturers need to take them seriously. “You are faced with the difficult decision of [whether] you slow down innovation in the interest of protecting the public or environmental health,” says Colvin.

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That trade-off is a major concern for Lloyd Tran, president of the International Association of Nanotechnology, a California-based trade association. He acknowledges the importance of developing product safety standards for carbon nanotubes. But he fears that the new rules will drive smaller, younger firms from the field, stifling research and development. Such firms are already struggling to comply with a more limited registration effort being carried out by California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. “Why should I produce when I’m going to have to spend all this time and money?” Tran asks, citing a common complaint of his group’s smaller members.

Odds are that the EPA will propose similar rules for other nanoparticles. Apart from other carbon nanotubes, the top prospects for regulation include titanium dioxide, used in sunscreen and cosmetics, and copper-indium-gallium-diselenide, a compound used in thin-film solar cells.

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