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The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (a partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts) compiles an inventory of nanotech-enabled consumer products, and they recently announced that they’ve identified 1,000 nano products.

Given the many concerns about effects of nanoparticles on workers’ health, human tissues, and even our water supply, it’s too soon to be using nanoparticles widely – but that’s exactly what’s already happened.

Although nanotechnologies have many potentially valuable applications (like improving monitoring and treatment of cancers), using them in products like chocolate shakes, bedsheets, teapots, and socks isn’t worth the risks.  

And, as PEN Director David Rejeski notes, it’s not as though the Food and Drug Administration or Consumer Product Safety Commission is ready to assess the safety of 1,000 new nano products.

Three physicians and researchers from the Capital University of Medical Sciences (Beijing, China) have published a case report in the European Respiratory Journal describing severe lung disease in seven female workers employed at a shop where they applied polyacrylic coatings to polystyrene boards.  The lung disease is just one part of the story—two of the women died (ages 19 and 29)—the other part is that pathology samples from the workers’ lungs identified 30 nm (nanometer) in diameter particles.  Further investigation found that the coatings used by the workers contained nano partcles, too.

I commend the authors for taking the time to write up their findings and sharing them in the peer-reviewed literature.  As our public health history has demonstrated time and again, we rely on alert clinicians to find time in their stretched-thin schedules to share compelling, puzzling, exceptional or intriguing medical findings.   Here are the basics of this case(s) report:

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University of Maryland Law Professor Rena Steinzor called for fundamental changes to the role of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in federal regulatory review, at a House Committee hearing held on April 30.  The Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the Committee on Science and Technology has been examining OIRA’s functions and responsibilities, with the chairman stating:

“…Though rarely in the headlines, OIRA has, in the years since its creation under President Reagan, quietly become the most powerful regulatory office in the Federal government.”

Professor Steinzor noted that the nomination of Cass Sunstein, President Obama’s choice for OIRA chief,* is looming, thus it is appropriate to examine the office’s function.  Steinzor made three specific points:

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Cross-posted from CPR Blog, by Rena Steinzor

We’ve written a great deal about Cass Sunstein, the Harvard law professor who is expected to get the nod to be the “regulatory czar” for the Obama Administration.   In a nutshell, our concern is that Sunstein will stifle the efforts of health, safety, and environmental protection agencies to struggle to their feet after eight long years of evisceration by the Bush Administration’s regulatory czars, John Graham, and his protégé, Susan Dudley.

But, we got to thinking.  Just because the 30-year tradition of regulatory czars is to kill regulations, leaving people to fend for themselves in the “free” market, should not mean that regulation-killing is the only thing in the job description.   What if “regulatory czar” was the person ultimately responsible for making sure the Executive Branch produces good and needed regulations?

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By Jerome Paulson

Starting on February 10th, companies won’t be able to sell children’s products that contain more than 600 parts per million total lead. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recently clarified the requirements under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, and put to rest the fear that thrift stores and consignment stores would have to go through lead certification processes for all of the many products they sell. But some consumers and businesses are still concerned that the costs of third-party lead testing will be too high for small toymakers, and have started a petition to the CPSC.

I believe this effort is misguided, because our first responsibility has to be to protect children. No amount of lead is safe. Manufactures have the moral, as well as legal, responsibility to put toys and other children’s products on the market that are not harmful.

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Members of the media are gravely enumerating all the challenging circumstances that President-Elect Obama faces (financial collapse, two wars, global climate disruption, etc), so it’s worth noting that this is also a tough time for product safety. Recent problems with lead in children’s toys, contaminated food, and tainted drugs have demonstrated how many holes exist in our systems for ensuring product safety, and China’s melamine problem highlights how problematic it can be to rely on countries whose safety mechanisms are even weaker.

Here’s a quick review of where things stand:

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Last month, Congress passed and the President signed major legislation strengthening the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The Washington Post’s Annys Shin described it this way:

The measure … represents the most significant expansion of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) since it was created in 1973. It also marks a fundamental shift in the federal government’s approach to protecting consumers from dangerous products: transforming a reactive stance to a preventive one by dealing with hazards before goods reach the marketplace, including products manufactured overseas.

And just last week, the agency’s new powers proved essential for protecting children from defective bassinets that strangled two infants.

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The winners of the 92nd annual Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday, and reporting on veterans’ care and on drug and product safety scored top honors in the journalism category:

The Public Service prize went “to the Washington Post for the work of Dana Priest, Anne Hull and photographer Michel du Cille in exposing mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, evoking a national outcry and producing reforms by federal officials.” The Post’s Walter Reed and Beyond website includes the original stories and slideshows, as well as reporting on the federal response.

The Investigative Reporting prize had two winners: “Walt Bogdanich and Jake Hooker of The New York Times for their stories on toxic ingredients in medicine and other everyday products imported from China, leading to crackdowns by American and Chinese officials”; and “the Chicago Tribune Staff for its exposure of faulty governmental regulation of toys, car seats and cribs, resulting in the extensive recall of hazardous products and congressional action to tighten supervision.” The New York Times doesn’t appear to have a special page dedicated to Bogdanich and Hooker’s reporting, but their initial article is here and others are listed here; the Chicago Tribune has a Kids at Risk website for its articles and resources.

Congratulations to the newspapers, reporters, and staff for their excellent work – and thanks to all of the journalists who are drawing attention to health and safety shortcomings and prompting officials to address them.

On Thursday, the Senate approved legislation that will boost funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, increase the agency’s enforcement power, and effectively ban lead in all children’s products. The House bill passed in December contained similar provisions, although that chamber raised the maximum fine for companies that fail to report product hazards immediately to only $10 million, compared to a Senate cap of $20 million. Compared to the current maximum of $1.8 million, though, those are both big improvements.

There are some ways in which the Senate bill is markedly tougher than the House bill, though – and tougher than what the White House wants. The Washington Post’s Annys Shin explains:

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As the recent problems with tainted food, drugs, toys, and other consumer products have made clear, our regulatory system has a lot of holes in it. Part of the problem is the current reluctance of agency appointees to do anything that might burden the industries in question, but that’s not the whole story. It’s also the case that the laws we rely on to protect us from dangerous products simply aren’t strong enough.

The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production (at the University of Massachusetts Lowell) has just issued two reports that pinpoint the policy problems we’re facing and offer suggestions for how to fix them.

The Presumption of Safety: Limits of Federal Policies on Toxic Substances in Consumer Products identifies these four limitations in the current regulatory system:

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