Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Report on EPA VPP Meeting

This is a summary of the discussions that took place on September 29th at the Holiday Inn-Roslyn by the Ad Hoc Group on Nanoscale Materials of the National Pollution Prevention and Toxics Advisory Committee (NPPTAC). I stayed for the entire meeting. A summary will be provided by Meridian as well. In general, the foregone conclusion is that nanoscale materials will be regulated as such under the auspices of a voluntary pilot program (VPP).

Two imperatives (of sorts): 1. products will enter the market ahead of the toxicology data (think COX-2 inhibitors), and 2. nano-particles will be intentionally released as a remediative (and have been, e.g., nano-magnesium oxide used in ameliorating toxic fumes (Karn references a special EPA meeting on remediation and nano-particles).

Most of the material on the proposed VPP can be acquired from the EPA site (http://www.epa.gov/oppt/npptac/meetings.htm). The VPP was envisioned as a two prong approach: a basic and an in-depth program. The simplest delineation is: basic involves collecting extant data sets while in-depth would involve initiatives to generate additional data sets.

Concerns included occupational exposure but for this meeting the focus was on waste management and full-life cycle disposition of the material. Macroscopically there was some interest in international cooperation and references were made to the upcoming OECD meeting.

I enjoyed the discussion of public outreach because that is one of the important things we do at the University of South Carolina’s NanoScience and Technology Studies program.

One participant asked the question why we should be concerned about involving the public. And I believe he deserves kudos. The rhetoric associated with outreach and stakeholder involvement has been embarrassing over the last few years. While hats off to upstream engagement theory, what does this mean?

While everyone nods to political philosophy on participatory democracy as some grounds for public involvement, there are some additional motivations that need to breathe the fresh air of scrutiny. Since I am presenting a paper on this soon, you get the outline. PLEASE understand I am not advocating anything itemized below.

Why involve the public?

Everyone knows about my experience writing on hyperbole so the opening salvo is fairly straightforward.

The majority of products entering the marketplace and receiving the most media identification have been luxury products, such as pants, bowling balls, etc. However, the hyperbole has been built around claims associated with health, energy, etc. This apparent misalignment makes public engagement more important since support can be expected to be volatile.

1. Should an anti-nanotechnology movement develop, a counter-public may need to rise up to debate them (much more on this from me very soon).
2. Should an anti-nanotechnology public begin to coalesce, decision making transparency (actual or symbolic) by government and industrial stakeholders may reduce membership and limit tactical opportunities, such as protest.
3. Should an anti-nanotechnology public/movement begin to produce levels of concern sufficient to support boycotts of nano-enhanced products, consumers will need a counter-balance to the hazard rhetoric.
4. Should the general public begin to challenge the funding levels associated with the NNI/NNP either because of the aforementioned hypothetical anti-nanotechnology public or movement, media representations of hazards, or both, competitive sources of information may reduce the valence of the outcry (real or perceived by legislators is irrelevant).
5. Should the public being unwilling to pay more to buy nano-enhanced products (which will cost more initially) because the added value is counter-balanced by societal concerns of all sorts, the societal concerns need to be debunked when they are simply wrongheaded. This is more relevant if labeling of nano-products becomes necessary (UK might think so).

And it was incredibly obvious the VPP ad hoc group spent very little time and energy considering anything this detailed. Not a single person in the group is in science and technology communication or even risk communication. The group currently includes four representatives from environmental NGOs, five from industry, and one from an animal welfare organization. The talk about building trust was under-informed like it was something we can do easily and on the cheap. It will take a lot more than “gimme” caps and bumper stickers!

Here are the two most important parts of the meeting from my point of view.

1. How can the VPP encourage business and industry participation? Here were some general suggestions. 1. Branding (let participants communicate they participated in some variation of corporate social responsibility). 2. Safe harbor (no one seemed particularly interested in defending this concept). 3. EPA consultation service. 4. Accelerated PMN process.
2. How long will this VPP be in effect? Three, five, seven…. No consensus existed. Whether the basic and in-depth versions might be serial in nature. When is a decision made to regulate? When is the data sufficient? And who decides when it is?

Other important issues include and remain unresolved: 1. New vs. existing chemical (MSDSs still reference nano-carbon entities as carbon black or synthetic graphite) and aggregation vs. agglomeration remain a variable in establishing risks, 2. Exemptions, 3. Small business participation, and 4. Data compensation. Many of the remaining ISSUES FOR FURTHER CONSIDERATION seemed housekeeping in nature.

This process needs to be watched carefully. Thankfully, Richard Denison (Environmental Defense Fund) and Larry Andrews (ACC’s CHEMSTAR Nanotechnology Panel) are in the group, both reasonable and informed people.

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