Inspector General: EPA Lacks Regulation of Nanomaterials

Test tubes filled with liquid and a dropper

The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have the data or ability to manage the challenges associated with nanomaterials, concludes a report from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General.

The agency responsible for regulating the U.S. environment and human health finds itself ill-equipped to handle issues posed by nanomaterials. According to the report, the problem begins with the lack of data from manufacturers of nanomaterials and continues with the lack of administrative ability to manage matters associated with the emerging industry.

Nanomaterials are man-made, or altered, super-small materials that are integrated into consumer and commercial products. Scientists create these nanomaterials through manipulation of substances at a molecular or atomic level.

Because some carbon nanotubes resemble asbestos fibers, critics question whether they trigger the development of diseases like mesothelioma. The manner in which these materials enter or affect the human body is not fully understood.

If risks do exist, preventive action cannot be taken unless proper regulations are in place.

Issues Within The Agency

EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr. outlined the agency’s commitment to fixing these problems but acknowledges the issue is multidimensional. Regarding the lack of data, most companies are unwilling to share information. As much as 90 percent of industry data was labeled as confidential and therefore not accessible to the agency.

On the administrative end, the EPA lacks formal processes to handle information and lacks a communication strategy to manage all nano-related data. The result of these organizational holes, the report says, is that agency “will not be able to assure that it is effectively managing nanomaterial risks” until these internal processes are improved.

This latest report adds on to a list of concerns about the EPA.

Since 2007, the agency has been the target of critics after it was reported that the EPA knew about asbestos-containing materials being shipped to various locations and did nothing to stop it.

More recently, the agency was challenged by Inspector General Elkins for having faulty policies for asbestos demolitions. Because of the agency’s wide-reaching responsibilities, critics wonder just how damaging EPA errors are.

The EPA’s Problem Becomes Our Problem

The reason that the EPA has begun to shine a light on its nanotechnology management problem is because this complicated science opens the door for an entirely new level of toxic materials. Researchers are unfamiliar with the totality of materials that are being integrated into consumer products.

Without proper understanding and regulation, the general public may unknowingly be at risk of developing a variety of cancers, conditions and disorders.

One product type that contains nanomaterials that is exemplified throughout the report is sunscreen. Dermal penetration of some toxic nanomaterials into the skin can potentially cause tremendous hazard to humans. Also, by washing sunscreen off by showering, you may be unknowingly releasing toxic materials into the water supply.

Furthermore, because of dioxide contaminants within the product, improper disposal of sunscreen can cause more harm than previously imagined. An empty sunscreen bottle, which may contain titanium dioxide, that is disposed in a landfill may eventually end up seeping into waterways and eventually getting ingested by humans.

To provide perspective of the size of these nanomaterials, consider this: nanoparticles and nanomaterials often have diameters smaller than 100 nanometers. One inch comprises of 25.7 million nanometers. An earthworm is approximately 10 million nanometers long. A DNA molecule is 1 nanometer wide.

According to the Inspector General’s report, only 29 companies disclosed data about their use of 123 different nanomaterials. The agency also set up a program that encouraged companies to further provide information about how development uses and research into nanomaterials. Only four companies participated.

Currently, laws are on the books that mandate some communication between the nanotechnology industry and the government. However, tougher laws are needed to draw out more data. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) both provide lawmakers with a platform to tighten requirements about how companies report their information.

As outlined by Elkins, even if all the necessary and relevant data was available, the agency still would not be able to manage the information. A lack of organizational structure and processes would result in the EPA being inefficient at best when managing nanomaterials. It will require an ongoing effort to improve the EPA’s management of these relatively new materials.

In a letter from the Inspector General to another EPA administrator, it was acknowledged that an action plan has been established by the agency and appears to be moving forward, providing consumers with some level of comfort towards this issue. As time will be the biggest judge of the EPA’s progress, consumers should remain proactive in learning about potential dangers in all products.


Mark Hall joined the Mesothelioma Center as a writer in 2011. Prior to joining the content team, Mark graduated from the University of Florida and then spent several years writing about business, entrepreneurship and technology for various online publications.

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