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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies > Who Put the Nano in My Teddy Bear?

David Rejeski
Director
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Abstract:
When we recently updated our inventory of manufacturer-identified, nanotech-enabled consumer products, there were a few surprises: the product landscape was now dotted with some new entries targeted clearly at children (and, by default, their parents). It is probably worth asking some questions about their safety or asking, more broadly, "Who is in charge of testing these products and making sure that they do not present risks to children, especially products that go directly into the mouth?"

October 17th, 2007

Who Put the Nano in My Teddy Bear?

When we recently updated our inventory of manufacturer-identified, nanotech-enabled consumer products, there were a few surprises. Not only had the number of products doubled within just 14 months, to 580, but the product landscape was now dotted with some new entries targeted clearly at children (and, by default, their parents) (1).

The Nano Silver Baby Mug from Korea has a nano-poly system that "prevents 99.9 percent of germs." Then there is the Nano Silver Anti-Bacterial Baby Bottle Brush, which offers customers a brush that can "clean and protect your health as well." Add to these the Nano Pacifier, Nano Silver Teeth Developer, and Nano Finger Toothbrush, all from Taiwan. And there really is a Teddy Bear, from China, that claims to be "a water-repellent, stain resistant plush toy and…also could effectively prevent bacteria from spreading through liquid mediums." What is not to like?

All these products seem to make use of nano-scale silver, a highly potent anti-microbial. We do not test these products so we have no way of verifying these claims, or assessing the potential risks, but it is probably worth asking some questions about their safety or asking, more broadly, "Who is in charge of testing these products and making sure that they do not present risks to children, especially products that go directly into the mouth?"

Well, thanks to Mattel and Thomas the Tank Engine, most Americans now know who is supposed to be protecting our children when it comes to toys and many other baby items: the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC). The CPSC is one of the most important federal agencies that nobody has heard anything about. Tucked away in a non-descript office building in Maryland, the CPSC oversees 15,000 consumer product lines, everything from bike helmets to chain saws and baby cribs. The CPSC staff has gone from nearly 1,000 at its high point to just 401 people today, loosing 15 percent of its workforce in only the last two years and employing only one full-time toy tester (2).

As the American public is quickly learning, United States (U.S.) borders are proving more and more porous to a variety of potentially harmful products that may once have been assumed to be harmless. On one single day in October (the 4th), the CPSC recalled over a half million toys distributed by eight U.S. firms for violating our lead paint standard. All of these toys came from China (3). Lead's pernicious effects were recognized as early as 2000 BC, so we are not dealing with some new microbe or molecule out of a Michael Crichton novel.

But the problem goes far beyond lead in toys. A do-it-yourself home waterproofing spray recently caused a number of well-documented illnesses that exposed the agency's inability to act quickly and serves as "a powerful illustration of the commission's failure to fully live up to its mission" (4) . Who can forget the recent scares involving antifreeze in toothpaste and rat poison in tainted pet foods that crossed our borders and ended up on the front page of the morning newspaper? In these cases, where was the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has jurisdiction over such products? Much like the CPSC, the FDA has seen significant cuts in their staff and budget while corresponding oversight responsibilities have expanded (5).

If our oversight system cannot keep these run-of-the-mill products containing toxins off the shelves and out of the mouths of various family members, how are they going to deal with nanotechnologies or any other emerging technologies with potentially novel properties and yet-to-be-determined risks?

Effective oversight (both voluntary and mandatory) is key to maintaining consumer confidence as we introduce new technologies into society. Consumers need assurances of product safety and companies need a level playing field without having to worry about imported products undermining basic standards. As such standards are being developed for nanotech products, the real threat will be from companies and countries that do not heed them. Large emerging markets can be compromised through corporate negligence combined with government inaction.

The issue of nanotech oversight is occurring at a time when increasing numbers of manufacturers in the U.S. are actually calling for more stringent federal environmental, health, and safety mandates. A representative from the National Association of Manufacturers recently commented that, "There seems to be, at the moment, a fair amount of effort under way by individual industries to put into statute what had previously been voluntary consensus standards or industry goals" (6).

Given the low level of pubic awareness of nanotechnology (70-80 percent of American adults have heard very little or nothing about it), bad news could dampen consumer enthusiasm and impact market growth across a wide range of industry sectors and product lines (7). The worst scenario would be a highly visible incident concerning a nanotech product that highlighted both unattended risks and a simultaneous failure of our oversight agencies.

Though our polls indicate that confidence in federal regulatory agencies is decreasing, it is still far better than trust in industry (8). When agencies like the CPSC and FDA do their jobs, their expertise and legitimacy are a powerful palliative against accidents, public backlash, and liabilities for industry. We need to untie their hands and give them some resources. Their decisions about regulation also need to be backed up by good science and risk assessments—and that means a coherent federal strategy for nanotech-related environmental, health, and safety risks that is tied directly to emerging oversight challenges. We do not have the research required to begin to assess the risks or benefits posed by a nanotech baby pacifier or a host of other nanotechnology applications that are already on the market.

It is also important to recognize that oversight is built on an interrelated system of checks and balances. For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the gatekeeper sitting at the front end of the production chain for many products. Once new substances, like nano-engineered materials, move past EPA and enter commerce, it is extremely difficult to remove them. EPA's recent decision under the Toxic Substances Control Act to treat nano-scale materials like their bulk counterparts opens the door to potential down-stream problems (9). Once EPA lets these materials into commerce, agencies like CPSC and FDA have to deal with the long-term consequences as they show up in thousands of products with a broad range of end uses and exposure routes.

Given the uncertainties around risks, lack of industry standards, and low level of public trust in business, effective government oversight is critical in ensuring that the large investments by government and industry in nanotech R&D will have long-term social and economic benefits. We need to make sure that agencies like CPSC, EPA, and FDA become a viable part of our country's strategy to develop and exploit the promise of nanotechnology. That work extends beyond our national boundaries and must involve better coordination between the regulatory bodies in all nations developing nanotechnology applications (10).

As a recent editorial in The New York Times commented, "Consumers deserve better" (2).


REFERENCES

(1) The inventory of manufacturer-identified, nano-based consumer products is available at: http://www.nanotechproject.org/44

(2) "The Caveat Emptor Commission," The New York Times, October 10, 2007. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/10/opinion/10wed1.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

(3) " KB Toys Recalls Wooden Toys Due to Violation of Lead Paint Standard," NEWS from CPSC, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Washington, DC, October 4, 2007, Release #08-004. Available from: http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtml08/08004.html

(4) Eric Lipton, "Dangerous Sealer Stayed on Shelves After Recall," The New York Times, October 8, 2007. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/08/washington/08consumer.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

(5) Concerns about the lack of resources at FDA prompted the recent creation of the Coalition for A Stronger FDA, a broad coalition of patient groups, nonprofit organizations, consumer advocates, public health organizations and innovative companies that are working to increase FDA's appropriations. See: http://www.fdacoalition.org/

(6) Eric Lipton and Gardiner Harris, "In A Turnaround, Industries Seek U.S. Regulations," The New York Times, September 16, 2007. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/16/washington/16regulate.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&oref=slogin&adxnnlx=1192024960-YmyGcCe9UL7lMdj2nT2Ejg Also see: Andrew Pollack, "Without U.S. Rules: Biotech Food Lacks Investors," The New York Times, July 30, 2007. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/30/washington/30animal.html ; Jane Zhang, "Food Makers Get Appetite for Regulation," The Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2007. Available at http://www.mindfully.org/Industry/2007/GMA-Like-Regulation17sep07.htm

(7) A national poll by Hart Research involving 1,014 adults conducted in August 2007 revealed that 70-80 percent of those surveyed had heard "nothing" or "very little" about nanotechnology. These figures are almost identical to results from a similar poll conducted one year ago. See: http://www.nanotechproject.org/138/9252007-poll-reveals-public-awareness-of-nanotech-stuck-at-low-level

(8) The poll referenced above also explored public confidence in government agencies (EPA, FDA, and USDA) and business to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks associated with scientific and technological advances like nanotech. Between 57 and 59 percent had confidence in government agencies versus just 44 percent in industry, a number that has declined since last year's survey.

(9) TSCA Inventory Status of Nanoscale Substances—General Approach, Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, July 12, 2007. Available at: http://www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic/component/main?main=DocumentDetail&d=EPA-HQ-OPPT-2004-0122-0057

(10) In a recent talk, Meglena Kuneva, the commissioner for consumer protection in the European Union (E.U.) criticized the U.S. for lax consumer standards and urged that "the two bodies work together to enforce higher standards." She noted that, "In the area of the governance of product safety, the U.S. might stand to benefit from a closer study of what has been done in Europe over the years." Cited in: Alissa M. D'Gama, "E.U. Rep Seeks Tougher Safety Laws," The Harvard Crimson, October 4, 2007. Available at http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=519841

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