Many public health hazards are too small to see. This is especially true of engineered nano-materials, or ENMs. As their name implies, these materials are small—no more than a few hundred nanometers in diameter. (For perspective, one nanometer is one billionth of a meter, or one human hair split lengthwise 80,000 times!)
Sounds cool, right? But consider this: ENMs’ small size could increase the health risk they pose for humans exposed to them. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Significantly smaller than most toxicants, some ENMs may be able to pass more easily through cell membranes, thereby reaching tissues other toxicants cannot. (For an overview, see this lengthy 2009 review from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.)
ENMs are probably in thousands of products. I say “probably” because no one, including government regulators, knows for sure how many—let alone which—products contain them. One estimate, from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, put the minimum number at 1,300 and predicted an increase to 3,400 by 2020. Read More >
Image Courtesy EPA
On Thursday evening, I ventured over to the National Academies of Science for the June edition of its monthly lecture series as part of its Network for Emerging Leaders in Sustainability. I particularly wanted to go to this event because the speaker was Alan Hecht, the director of sustainable development for the Environmental Protection Agency, in the Office of Research and Development. Come September, I will be working with that same office as a fellow, focusing on the environmental and regulatory concerns surrounding biofuels.
Before an audience of about 20 professionals representing several federal government agencies, consulting firms and nonprofit organizations, Hecht led an engaging discussion on EPA’s role in promoting sustainability. Hecht referred to a definition of sustainability from an executive order on government operations: “ensur[ing] that society is protected in the future by well-planned efforts and the reduction of risks.”
Hecht talked a bit about the foundations of the environmental movement, the history of the EPA, and the challenges of incorporating a broader, more integrated framework focusing on sustainability into an agency whose authority is largely based on legislation from the 1970s.
“Everyone embraces sustainability…the difficulty is how to make it operational,” he said. “That will be the challenge for the next decade.”
Hecht noted the challenges of environmental regulations and the inevitable balancing act that requires juggling the public’s well-being, business interests, finances and politics. In fact, when President Nixon created the EPA in 1970—he didn’t believe in the importance of the agency, but saw it as a necessary political move (according to notes taken by an aide during a discussion with Nixon).
Today, the EPA is still working from a 1970s framework, Hecht said. Environmental issues are often segmented into water issues, land issues, air issues, etc., but a cohesive framework that recognizes the connectedness of all these systems is lacking, as is an effective utilization of its manpower and expertise to work together. There also is a need for experts (read: environmental lawyers) to help delineate the agency’s legal authorities and advise on an efficient way to modernize its mandates from Congress. (For more on environmental law reform, Hecht recommended www.breakingthelogjam.org, a website of NYU Law School.)
Any thoughts out there on how the EPA should move into the future? There are a certainly a lot of daunting issues to overcome, but with a growing awareness of climate change, concern about peak oil and the growing body of technical knowledge about renewable energy sources (not to mention a need to revitalize the economy with new innovation) , there’s no time like the present, right?