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EPA set to study nanotech safety: chemical companies send in data to aid research

BASF Corporation, General Electric Company, NanoFilm Ltd. and PPG Industries are the latest chemical companies to provide data to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as part of an effort to determine whether nano-sized particles they use in products pose health hazards. The concern: whether there's a risk these microscopic particles, measuring up to 100 nanometers in length, can enter the lungs of  chemical workers and become lodged in tissue there and in their throats. The EPA launched the Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program (NMSP) in January and requested that companies provide the agency with info on the composition and volume of the nanoscale materials they manufacture, import, process or use.

A total of 13 companies have reported this information to the EPA on time for its July 28 deadline. Only three of those chemical providers--SouthWest NanoTechnologies, Inc., Swan Chemicals Inc. and Unidym--took the added step of sending the EPA their information and agreeing to participate in any in-depth data analysis programs that the EPA might propose at a later date.

Seventeen other companies (including Angstron Materials LLC, eSpin Technologies, Inc. and SouthWest NanoTechnologies, Inc.)  have vowed to supply the info but did not specify when they would hand it over. They have missed the deadline, but since the program is voluntary there is no penalty for delaying their responses.

Carbon nanotubes are brimming with possibilities, whether used to strengthen damaged cartilage, act as a drug delivery mechanism or create plastic that's as strong as steel. But some researchers are urging caution in handling these tiny particles until more is known about potential health risks. Nature Nanotechnology reported in May that scientists at Queen's Medical Research Institute at the University of Edinburgh/MRC Center for Inflammation Research (CIR) in Scotland found that long, thin carbon nanotubes look and behave  much like asbestos fibers, which are known to cause a deadly form of lung cancer.

The EPA plans to issue a report on its findings within two years; the results will be used to regulate chemicals with nanomaterials under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The agency hopes that a large sample of data will provide the science needed to rule out health and environmental hazards or rules needed to ensure the safe use and handling of chemicals infused with nano-sized particles. One goal is to nip any potential health problems in the bud before they become an issue as they did with asbestos.

(Image courtesy of iStockphoto)

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