The inability of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to carry out
its mandate with respect to simple, low-tech products such as children's jewelry
and toy trains bodes poorly for its ability to oversee the safety of complex,
high-tech products made using nanotechnology, according to a new report released
by the Project on
Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN).
Two nanotech products under the jurisdiction of the CPSC are being used in
the Olympic Games in Beijing – a pair of running shoes and a swimsuit.
The products can be found in PEN's consumer product inventory (http://www.nanotechproject.org/inventories/consumer/),
which now contains more than 800 manufacturer-identified, nanotechnology-enabled
"The agency lacks the budget, the statutory authority and the scientific
expertise to ensure the hundreds of nanoproducts now on the market, among them
baby bottle nipples, infant teething rings, paints, waxes, kitchenware and appliances,
are safe. This problem will only worsen as more sophisticated nanotechnology-based
products begin to enter the consumer market," argues E. Marla Felcher,
who teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and is the
author of the report, The Consumer Product Safety Commission and Nanotechnology.
The report is available at: www.nanotechproject.org/n/CPSC/.
The CPSC is charged with protecting the public against unreasonable risks of
injury or death associated with consumer products. More than 15,000 consumer
goods fall under the CPSC's jurisdiction, including toys and baby products,
sports equipment, fitness equipment, home improvement and garden equipment,
clothing, appliances, electronics and computers. The consumer product inventory
maintained by PEN indicates that nanotechnology has already found its way into
every one of these product categories.
"During the fall of 2007, many Americans faced a hazard in their products
that had been banned for 30 years — lead. As millions of children's toys
coated with lead paint were recalled, it became clear that government oversight
had failed, and that the CPSC, the agency primarily responsible for the oversight
of these toys, was stretched too thin from years of neglect, underfunding and
the challenges posed by an increasingly global manufacturing system," says
PEN Director David Rejeski. "It is against this background that we need
to ask the question: Is the CPSC adequately prepared to deal with nanotechnology,
which is now associated with more than 800 manufacturer-identified consumer
products ranging from infant pacifiers to paints to appliances to clothing?"
The release of PEN's new report comes on the heels of the president signing
legislation that eliminates lead in toys and either permanently or temporarily
bans six types of phthalates in children's products, which are under the CPSC's
jurisdiction. Phthalates are a broad family of chemicals primarily used to make
vinyl soft and flexible and are found in thousands of products including toys,
garden hoses, wiring and cables, construction materials, flooring, automotive
interiors and medical devices.
Felcher's report identifies many similarities between the issues raised by
phthalates and nanomaterials: many of the same products that contain phthalates
are now being made with nanomaterials (e.g., infants' pacifiers and teething
rings); both phthalates and nanomaterials can enter the human body through multiple
pathways, such as the lungs or digestive tract; and jurisdiction over phthalates
in the United States, like jurisdiction over nanomaterials, is spread over multiple
agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food & Drug
But despite these similarities, phthalates and nanomaterials differ in two
important respects, Felcher says. First, phthalates have been the subject of
thousands of scientific studies documenting their effect on the health of animals
and humans—some demonstrating a link between the chemicals and decreased
sperm count and sexual malformation in boys—while little is known about
possible chronic hazards associated with nanomaterials. Second, nanomaterials
are scientifically far more diverse than phthalates, increasing the complexity
involved in understanding their toxicology.
"It took decades of research before lawmakers found the political will
to keep lead and phthalates out of toys. It could take a very long time to research
and ensure that potentially dangerous nanomaterials are kept out, too,"
The new PEN report includes a number of recommendations Felcher believes will
help the CPSC to improve its oversight of nanomaterials in consumer products,
- Building the CPSC's nanotechnology knowledge base and expertise.
- Identifying companies and industries that are currently manufacturing nanoproducts
and request that they submit research studies, risk assessment data and any
information they possess that will enable the CPSC scientists to assess nanoproduct
- Urging Congress to amend the Consumer Product Safety Act to give the CPSC
the authority to require manufacturers to identify any nanomaterials in their
- Encouraging Congress to adopt a section Consumer Product Safety Act bill
recommended by the National Commission on Product Safety in its 1970 Final
Report, which would give the CPSC the authority to promulgate safety standards
for "new" consumer products based on new and emerging technologies,