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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies > New Oversight For A New Century

David Rejeski
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Nearly 40 years ago, a monumental achievement in governance and regulation was reached with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. But now, nearly a decade into the new century, the U.S. needs to take a bold step forward and address pollution and exposure in a more holistic and proactive manner. A new agency with a new vision and mission is needed to ensure technological innovation with minimal environmental impact, and a major new report released by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies outlines what this new agency could look like.

April 28th, 2009

New Oversight For A New Century

When popular and political pressure was building in the 1960s to establish the world's first comprehensive environmental protection department, oversight responsibility for water, waste, air pollution and toxics was spread over several federal agencies.

For example, the Department of Interior was in charge of water quality and pesticide research and the then-Department of Health, Education and Welfare was responsible for air pollution and waste management.

At the time, the idea of a comprehensive environmental protection department was novel and somewhat farfetched. Nonetheless by the summer of 1970, President Richard Nixon submitted to Congress a plan for a single entity to govern the United States' environmental policy -- the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The initial focus of the agency was on pollution of water, air and land. EPA was given the authority needed to set limits on the uses of chemicals and pesticides, creating a focus on specific categories of pollution and assessing their individual impacts. There is no doubt that today the environment is much cleaner than it was at the inception of the agency.

But existing health and safety agencies are unable to cope with the risk assessment, standard setting and oversight challenges of advancing nanotechnology. The nation needs a new agency to address current forms of pollution and to deal with the health and environmental impacts of the technically complex products promised by rapid 21st century scientific advances.

In the new Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies report Oversight of Next Generation Nanotechnology, author J. Clarence (Terry) Davies calls for a new Department of Environmental and Consumer Protection to oversee product regulation, pollution control and monitoring, and technology assessment.

According to Davies, "Federal regulatory agencies already suffer from under-funding and bureaucratic ossification, but they will require more than just increased budgets and minor rule changes to deal adequately with the potential adverse effects of new technologies. New thinking, new laws and new organizational forms are necessary. Many of these changes will take a decade or more to accomplish, but there is an urgent need given the rapid pace of technological change to start thinking about them now."

Now in the early 21st century, the government and the public face an emerging set of opportunities and threats related to recent advances in areas like nanotechnology. Nanoscale science and engineering can improve the performance of almost any product imaginable, from sporting goods to car batteries, but little is know about the risks nanomaterials may pose and there are many questions concerning their life-cycle impact.

Much like EPA was a landmark governance model nearly four decades ago, the nation needs a new agency to address the new forms of pollution and potential exposure to products that may result in a number of novel environmental and health impacts.

The proposed environment and consumer protection agency would foster more integrated oversight and a unified mechanism for product regulation necessary to deal with current problems like industrial pollution and newer challenges like nanotechnology. A more integrated approach to pollution control has been necessary since before EPA was created 40 years ago, and it is still necessary today.

EPA greatly changed governance and regulation of the damage humans do to the environment in the 20th century for the better. But now, nearly a decade into a new century, the United States. needs to take another bold step forward and address pollution and exposure in a more holistic sense. Only with a new agency, like the one being proposed by Davies, will we be able to do that.

To obtain a copy of the report visit:

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