STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's a warning of sorts about nanotechnology. Those are those super-small particles and fibers produced that could soon be in everything from cosmetics to computer chips to tennis rackets. Some people worry that nano materials may pose new threats to human health and the environment. And a report released today argues that existing laws and regulations probably are not enough to avoid the problems. NPR's Nell Boyce reports.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

Terry Davies used to work for the Environmental Protection Agency. He's spent over 30 years helping the government draft environmental regulations, usually after some sort of crisis.

Mr. TERRY DAVIES: If you look back at the history of most of the environmental regulations, they're reactions to adverse events, to disasters or oil spills or, you know, whatever.

BOYCE: Davies hopes it will be different for nanotechnology. He's just finished a report for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a research group set up by Congress. Davies believes that with nanotech, officials have a chance to take action before these tiny engineered materials become widespread. And he thinks new regulations are definitely needed.

Mr. DAVIES: The existing system is not well-tailored to deal with nanotechnology.

BOYCE: Nanotechnology has attracted billions of dollars in research funding from the government and industry in recent years. Here's why. It turns out that shockingly small spheres or tubes made from ordinary materials, like carbon and metal, can have different chemical and biological properties than their normal-sized counterparts. But studies suggest these new properties might also mean new potential dangers. Some nanoparticles can be absorbed through the skin or get inhaled into the lungs and create unexpected toxicity or immune reactions. Davies says there's been relatively little money spent on this kind of safety research.

Mr. DAVIES: We know so little about the hazards to the extent that there are any from nanotechnology. And what that means is that you need to have a regulatory system that provides incentives to generate the information.

BOYCE: So far, no federal agency has put in place any nano-specific regulations. The EPA is designing a two-year voluntary program aimed at collecting more safety information from industry. That's according to William Gulledge, chair of the Nanotechnology Panel at the American Chemistry Council.

Mr. WILLIAM GULLEDGE (American Chemistry Council): My sense is that they will go through this process in the voluntary program before making any decisions regarding the need or possibility of more regulations.

BOYCE: Gulledge says that over the last year, other agencies have started to gather information on things like possible health effects for workers who manufacture small materials. But he says the research is still in early days.

Mr. GULLEDGE: I think it's way too early to say that a new regulatory framework needs to be created for nano materials.

BOYCE: The Wilson Center report, of course, argues that this is exactly the right time. Terry Davies would like to see a new law specifically designed to make sure that nano materials don't pose an unacceptable risk. He knows there's always a reluctance to put new legislation in place, but if something bad happens, the public could demand it. Nell Boyce, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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