One of the priorities of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is improving the agency's chemical management program, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which oversees the use of industrial chemicals and some nanoscale materials, Owens said. TSCA has an inventory of more than 84,000 chemicals, yet it is the only major environmental law in the U.S. that hasn't been updated since its adoption in 1976, he said.
There are many problems with TSCA, among them, the absence of mandatory programs to determine the safety of existing chemicals, significant hurdles to obtaining data on their effects on health and the environment, and difficult legal and procedural obstacles to regulatory action.
"If someone comes to me and asks, `Is this chemical safe?' I can't tell you it's safe. I can't tell you it's unsafe, and that's a heck of a problem for consumers, but also for the industry," said Owens, a former Director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and Phoenix environmental attorney.
The EPA has seen significant activity on nanoscale materials over the past five years, having reviewed more than 70 filings of new nanomaterials under TSCA, he said. In 2008, the agency decided to treat a nanomaterial with the same molecular structure as a chemical already on the TSCA inventory as an existing chemical, meaning no public health notice and review were required, Owens said. Owens said the current Administration is reconsidering that policy.
"Nanomaterials have enormous potential benefits, but there are major questions about their possible health and environmental effects of them because no one really knows," he said.
Recently, the EPA has decided to develop significant new rules for the use of nanoscale materials, a process that could take three years, but that will provide the necessary answers, Owens said.
To read more about TSCA's treatment of nanotechnology, click here.