Regulating nanotechnology needed to truly benefit society: contributor

TAS iGEM 2017 Team with TAS Principal Dr. Richard Hartzell. From left: Candice Lee, Dylan Lu, Justin Pei, Catherine Yeh, Justin Yang, Christine Chen, William Chen, Yvonne Wei. (Courtesy of Ashley Lin)

Nanotechnology is a rapidly increasing field that involves the study and application of nanoscale materials (between 1 and 100 nanometers). Nanoparticles are used in everyday items, such as in cosmetics or clothing. Despite nanotechnology’s ability to have life-changing applications, regulation on nanoparticles has been careless and incomplete, and multiple hurdles makes regulation difficult.

One of the main hurdles of nanoparticle regulation deals with the definition of “chemical substance.” There is no specific legislation that regulates nanoparticles, but rather, nanoparticles are regulated by existing legislation under the umbrella term “chemical substance”.

For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a chemical substance based on molecular identity. This means that nanoparticles used in consumer products, such as titanium dioxide (TiO2) in sunscreen are declared as safe, since despite clear functional differences between bulk-sized and nanoscale TiO2 molecules, its bulk form (which contains the same molecular identity as the nanoscale form) was previously approved.

Treating nano-sized and bulk-sized materials as the same is dangerous. Even though nanoparticles such as TiO2 are often used in food preservatives and may not be toxic, experiments on daphnia (commonly known as waterfleas) have shown that nano-sized TiO2 causes severe growth retardation, mortality, and reproductive defects.

Some studies demonstrate that when inhaled, nano-sized TiO2 can damage the pulmonary wall and cause pulmonary tumors. Other types of nanoparticles, such as copper and zinc nanoparticles, can cause DNA damage in plants and terminate root elongation, which is necessary for plant survival.

Even if the definitional conflicts can be resolved, standards for testing procedures still pose problems for policymakers. In the United States, the EPA controls most substances emitted into the environment under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

The main issue with the TSCA is that it creates an exemption for “any food, food additive, drug, cosmetic, or device”. This essentially cordons off nanoparticles from EPA control, as most nanoparticles are used in cosmetic products and drugs. In order to successfully control a chemical substance, the EPA needs to prove that the substance “may present an unreasonable risk or injury to health or the environment”.

This is a heavy burden on the EPA, as before testing can even be conducted, the EPA has to also prove that the possibility of risk is “more than theoretical”. The lack of standardized testing methods makes this extremely difficult. Present nanoparticle testing follows a case-by-case scenario, where substances will only be tested when a case arises, as there is no hazard identification system in place. This means that dangers regarding nanoparticle products are only addressed when the threat arises, and threats are often not recognized until they have caused irreversible harm.

These are just a few of the challenges policymakers face when regulating nanotechnology. These challenges should be taken seriously, and lessons should be learned from past failures to regulate new substances, such as microplastics, that resulted in irreversible environmental damages. It is only through regulation and safe usage that new technologies can truly benefit society. 

By Ashley Lin, student at Taipei American School (TAS)