Andrew Maynard, chief scientist for The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a watchdog group, says that government regulation potentially toxic nanomaterials is currently very poor. He is shown here delivering an impassioned speech to Congress. The Democratic-controlled Congress has proposed new legislation to implement Dr. Maynard's safety suggestions.  (Source: The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies)
Congress will push bill to research the risks of nanotechnology and oversight

The field of nanotech is among the hottest areas in the research community today.  From carbon nanotubes, to nanoparticles, scientists are cooking up particles with unique properties and a plethora of uses.

However, there’s a dark lining to the silver nanotech clouds -- some reports indicate that many nanoparticles may have high toxicity rivaling substances like mercury, arsenic, and asbestos.  Indeed, there is much fear of nanotech.  Noted science fiction author Michael Crichton, a global warming skeptic, was among those concerned about nanotech's progress.  Mr. Crichton, who recently passed away, wrote a book about a swarm of self-replicating nanomachines that consumed living matter and threatened to wipe out life on Earth.

While scenarios like Mr. Crichton's are obviously far removed from current developments, the Democratic-controlled Congress is taking monitoring the safety of developing nanotechnology very seriously.  The House Science and Technology Committee has introduced new legislation which will increase funding to federal and government-sponsored efforts to learn more about the potential environmental, health and safety (EHS) risks posed by engineered nanomaterials.

Currently, $1.5B USD in taxes is funneled into government nanotech research.  The new bill would help to increase this funding, and potentially move some of the preexisting funding into safety research. 

The bill has a very strong chance of passing.  Last year a similar bill skimmed through the House by a 407 to 6 margin, showing strong bipartisan support.  The Senate would have passed it, but they ran out of time to do so last year. 

The government's nanotech safety efforts had picked up over the last several months after Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official J. Clarence (Terry) Davies' work on the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN), Nanotechnology Oversight: An Agenda for the Next Administration, which included a report calling for improved nanotech monitoring.  Mr. Davies urged improved risk and analysis and oversight of nanotech products by the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

David Rejeski, PEN's director, praised the pending legislation, stating, "We know that when materials are developed at the nanoscale that they pose potential risks that do not appear at the macroscale.  This new bill shows that lawmakers recognize both nanotechnology's enormous promise and possible problems. The legislation reflects mounting Congressional interest in understanding potential risks in order to protect the public and to encourage safe commercial development and investment."

The bill also follows a report by the National Research Council (NRC) panel, which blasted the Bush administration for dropping the ball on nanotech safety issues.  The report, which bears the lengthy title "Review of the Federal Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health and Safety Research" calls for a plan that will minimize risks, without hindering the valuable progress that nanotech research may provide.

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