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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies > The Consumer Products Safety Commission, Nanotech, and the ‘Wait and See Approach'

David Rejeski
Director
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Abstract:
In late August, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) released a report assessing the ability, or lack thereof, of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to ensure nanoproducts are safe. The report, written by consumer product expert E. Marla Felcher, concludes, "[t]he agency lacks the budget, the statutory authority and the scientific expertise to ensure the hundreds of nanoproducts now on the market … are safe." In 2007, millions of children's toys coated with lead paint were recalled, making it clear that government oversight had failed and that the CPSC was stretched too thin from years of neglect. It is against this background that we need to ask the question: Is the CPSC adequately prepared to deal with nanotechnology, which is now associated with more than 800 manufacturer-identified consumer products ranging from infant pacifiers to paints to appliances to clothing? Requiring industry to report on nanomaterials used and risk assessment performed, along with increasing nanotechnology expertise in the agency, would better equip the CPSC to succeed. The alternative is to wait for injury, death, or chronic effects to emerge and force further action.

September 17th, 2008

The Consumer Products Safety Commission, Nanotech, and the ‘Wait and See Approach'

The Consumer Products Safety Commission, Nanotech, and the ‘Wait and See Approach'

Congress and the White House took a step in the right direction this summer by approving a legislative measure that authorized $1 million for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to study the safety impacts of products that contain nanomaterials. While the effort may prove to be more symbolic than substantive because congressional appropriators must first fund the research, it is nevertheless noteworthy that officials in Washington are pushing the agency to identify potential risks posed by these novel materials - materials that are now in hundreds of consumer products. At the end of the day, though, the federal government - and in particular the CPSC - continues to employ a reactive "wait and see" approach that leaves consumers vulnerable to potentially hazardous products after they have entered the market and are often in wide use.
More than 15,000 consumer goods fall under the CPSC's jurisdiction, including toys and baby products, sports equipment, fitness equipment, home improvement and garden equipment, clothing, appliances, electronics and computers. Our Consumer Product Inventory indicates that nanotechnology has already found its way into every one of these product categories (1).
The current state of CPSC does not inspire much confidence. In fall 2007, millions of children's toys coated with lead paint were recalled in a poignant example of government oversight failure. The CPSC, the agency primarily responsible for the oversight of these toys, had been stretched far too thin from years of neglect, under funding, and the challenges posed by an increasingly global manufacturing system to perform its mandate - to protect the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death from consumer products under its jurisdiction. It is against this background that we need to ask the question: Is the CPSC adequately prepared to deal with nanotechnology, which is now associated with more than 800 manufacturer-identified consumer products, ranging from infant pacifiers to paints to appliances to clothing?
On August 21, 2008, only a week after President Bush signed the new CPSC bill into law, PEN released The Consumer Product Safety Commission and Nanotechnology (2). In the report, the author, Dr. E. Marla Felcher, a consumer product expert and Harvard lecturer, argues that the CPSC "…lacks the budget, the statutory authority and the scientific expertise to ensure the hundreds of nanoproducts now on the market, among them baby bottle nipples, infant teething rings, paints, waxes, kitchenware and appliances, are safe" (3).
In her report, Felcher summarizes painful stories of unnecessary death and injury resulting from the use of products like Stand ‘n Seal grout spray and baby bath seats, which ultimately come from ineffective injury reporting processes, bare minimum and delayed responses from manufacturers, and decades of neglect towards CPSC as a whole. To make her point, Felcher quotes CPSC Commissioner Thomas H. Moore testifying to Congress in 2007, "We have to wait until [a problem] develops and then try to solve it, usually after it has killed or injured consumers." (4)
While CPSC has little leverage, if none at all, to obtain information on potential risks, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently created a voluntary reporting mechanism outside of the CPSC to obtain information on nanomaterials and their potential risks. But according to PEN's Chief Science Advisor, Andrew Maynard, the voluntary program has yielded little relevant data. The program, known as the EPA Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program (NMSP), has obtained submission for only 93 nanomaterials (5). This proves that while voluntary reporting can start to educate policymakers, it is not always a substitute for more effective oversight.
In the short term, the "dearth of information on the toxicity of nanomaterials" may receive assistance in the form of a congressional appropriation for $1 million, but overhauling the long-followed reactive "wait and see" approach by the federal government in addressing such toxic risks is the most important thing officials at the CPSC and elsewhere in the government can do. This can be done by focusing attention on things like building the nanotechnology knowledge base and expertise within the CPSC, coordinating research on potential risks associated with nanomaterials between regulatory agencies, and giving the CPSC the authority to require manufacturers to identify the presence of nanomaterials in their products (6).

REFERENCES
(1) The Project's Consumer Products Inventory is available at: http://www.nanotechproject.org/inventories/consumer/
(2) See "The Consumer Product Safety Commission and Nanotechnology," released 21 August 2008. Available at: http://www.nanotechproject.org/news/archive/cpsc/
(3) Ibid. p. 3
(4) Ibid. p. 9
(5) See article by ACS analyst, Rhitu Chatterjee, "The continuing uncertainty of nano risks and regulations" 10 September 2008. Available at: http://pubs.acs.org/cgi-bin/sample.cgi/esthag/asap/html/es802396x.html
(6) More information on these recommendations can be found in Felcher's report.




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