Labor/environmental coalition rejects nanotechnology treatise

By Sarah Fister Gale, Small Times’ contributing editor

In an open letter to the international nanotechnology community at large, the Civil Society-Labor Coalition recently rejected what it referred to as the “fundamentally flawed Dupont-Environmental Defense proposed framework” for voluntary risk assessment of nanotechnology.

The group, which is made up of 20 public interest, non-profit and labor organizations, including Friends of the Earth, The Center for Food Safety, United Steelworkers of America and Greenpeace, contends that “any process in which broad public participation in government oversight of nanotech policy is usurped by industry and its allies is flawed.”

George Kimbrell, Staff Attorney for The International Center For Technology Assessment, says that the Coalition opposes any voluntary regulation as a means for oversight, both in general and specific to nanotechnology. “Voluntary regulations have often been used to delay or weaken rigorous regulation and we feel it will delay or forestall necessary oversight.”

The Coalition also feels that the nanotech industry should have no part in developing the framework, Kimbrell says. “Many groups involved with the letter felt the framework was wrongheaded from the beginning. Environmental Defense and Dupont are not the place to begin discussions and they do not represent us. We feel it should be a public process involving the EPA the FDA and their sister agencies.”

The letter goes on to state that the members of the group made the decision not to engage in the process — which called for public comments after the framework was drafted — out of: “well-grounded concerns that our participation — even our skeptical participation ¿ would be used to legitimize the proposed framework as a starting point or ending point for discussing nanotechnology policy, oversight and risk analysis.”

The Coalition intends to release its own suggested model for oversight of nanomaterials later this year in hopes of influencing the debate and adjusting the regulatory framework to adhere to its concerns.

Mark Mansour, partner in the D.C. law firm Foley & Lardner LLP says, “No-one wants to put out a product without verifying its safety,” he says. “The industry wants a framework for oversight, however we can never achieve the kinds of safety that some of these groups insist on.”

Many of the groups in the Coalition are calling for a complete moratorium on all products using nanotech materials, while others want much stricter product testing and labeling prior to market release.

Mansour, who has been involved with regulatory work in biotechnology and emerging technologies for 15 years, feels that it is unreasonable to demand that the industry not be involved with developing a framework for health and safety risk assessment of nanomaterials. “These are the people who have the greatest knowledge about nanotechnology,” he says.

He also notes that while the coalition wants federal agencies to develop and conduct the oversight of nanotechnology, these agencies don’t have the funding to do what the coalition is asking them to do. “They have a wish list of things that seem designed to ensure the failure of the industry, which is poking holes in their sincerity,” Mansour says.

He admits that it is unlikely that industry and the members of this coalition will ever come to a complete agreement but that they will likely find some common ground. “The battle line has been drawn, and they have made their position clear,” he says. “This letter is not going to change the way industry does business but it will start a lot of discussions about how to maintain health and safety, which is a good thing because it is something that we are all concerned about.”


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