Nanoparticles -- those sub-optical materials found in more than 500 consumer products -- are being eyed by some lawmakers and regulators as a potential public health risk. Little-to-nothing is known about the long-term effects these particles might have on human health or the environment. No one even knows in what quantities they're being produced.
Wisconsin Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) has called on the Departments of Natural Resources, Health and Family Services, and Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to require private companies that manufacture nanoparticles to disclose the types of particles they're making and in what amount.
"The measurement of and accountability for such materials has become a matter of public concern that requires a public response -- for the safety of workers, consumers and the public at large," Berceau wrote to agency heads last month. (See the related download at right for her letter.)
Berceau spoke to The Daily Page this week about why this step is important and whether the state should spend more on risk assessment.
The Daily Page: What concerns you about nanotechnology?
Berceau: First, it's really exciting, as a science. As somebody who's had cancer, one thing that excites me is [the technology's potential] to target tumors. But I was invited to a conference about a year ago and one thing stressed was that there's a lot we don't know about what nanoparticles can do in the environment. We should know who is doing what with them and in what amount. We have no sort of accounting for that right now.
I've since discovered that the DNR and other agencies are looking at this issue. And I thought, "I'm going to see if we can really start approaching this in a more formal way." What do we need to know and how do we get that information?
How responsive have the scientists been?
This is just step one. We haven't put together a group that involved people outside of the agencies just yet. I think it's unfortunate that a story on WKOW said I'm out to regulate the science. I've been very supportive of the scientific community on campus and worked with everyone from stem-cell researchers to other biologists. I don't want to be putting any restrictions on what they do, whether they're at the university or in the private sector. I'm just responding to what I heard from them, which is: "We want you to know that we don't know what these things might do in the environment."
Do you worry that any regulations might drive tech companies away?
I don't know why everyone is insistent on using the word "regulating." All I am asking for is information about what's out there. We're not saying, "You can't use X amount," because we don't know what X amount will or won't do. It's not an attempt to regulate, it's an attempt to get information. Then we'll we know that Company X out in Research Park is using this stuff and in this amount. So if we discover, down the line, that there are adverse consequences, we're not left thinking, "Where could this have possibly come from?"
There's a lot of people taking a look at this issue. The EPA has a voluntary registry right now. But one of the issues with that -- and this is where people see the word regulation -- is that commercial enterprises might be using nanoparticles in something they hope is going to beat the competition in terms of product development. So they probably are not going to be particularly forthcoming.
I don't know if you've noticed, but you can buy socks now that have nanoparticles that help lift the moisture off your feet. You see them in cosmetics, with nanoparticles being used for a variety of things that may or may not be good for the skin. We know there are a lot of good things they can do. We don't know, because they're highly reactive materials, we don't know what they might do that is negative in certain volumes.
Should the state invest more in researching the safety risks nanoparticles might pose?
From a public perspective, we should be supporting the science all around.