By Kas

What happens when Founding Fathers question the existence of the system they helped to create?  No, not those Founding Fathers.  Here we’re referring to William D. Ruckelshaus and J. Clarence “Terry” Davies, two of our environmental policy champions and USEPA bricklayers.  In the April 2009 publication Oversight of Next Generation Nanotechnology from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Ruckelshaus provides a preface to Davies’ report that only hints at the innovative facelift soon fleshed out in approximately 30 pages of text.

Davies does not mince his words nor does he waste any time in pointing out the cracks in the environmental regulatory foundation.  Is it tough love when Davies states that the “federal agencies responsible for environmental health and safety has steadily eroded” decayed to a point where “they are completely unable to cope with the new challenges they face in the 21st century”?  If his use of words such as antiquated, fragmented, or crisis makes the reader uncomfortable, is that a good thing?

Nanotechnology is Davies’ totem.  Rightfully so.  It is ideal in that our current state of knowledge regarding nanotechnology risks to human health and the environment are both guided by existing regulations and used to inform a new regulatory landscape.  No other known or potential hazard so well defines the existing system’s weaknesses and inability to adequately address emerging environmental and occupational health hazards.  Yes, REACH is referenced.  Yes, TSCA reform is mentioned.  And yes, we are asked to question the status quo. (Below the jump: Davies’ proposals for major shifts to the status quo.)

When Founding Fathers question what they created, they share in the responsibility of fixing the problem – or at least proposing a deliberative approach towards resolution.  Because gentrification of the existing system would require “tinkering” on a massive scale, a new system is proposed: the hypothetical Department of Environmental and Consumer Protection.


Davies’ recommendation is to engage in dialogue about what a new regulatory oversight mechanism would look like.  He envisions that Version 2.0 would be a “scientific agency with an oversight component” because “the scientific complexity of 21st-century problems requires oversight agencies that have strong scientific competence.”  Team this with the financial booster shot to the NIH and NSF and with President’s Obama’s pledge to invest in science, and in the next decade we may have something on which to stand.

The new agency would integrate and reorganize closely-related programs such as the EPA, USGS, NOAA, OSHA, NIOSH, and the CPSC to ensure that the government has the tools and frameworks needed to address existing and emerging hazards.  To thwart the bureaucratic tangles of large government, Davies suggests that the individual components would operate with independence.  Regulatory oversight should encompass the life cycle of the product and the stringency of regulatory requirements should correlate with risk.  Yes, the paper is too short to give each hypothetical cell the attention needed.  Regardless, the point is well-made and well-taken: environmental and occupational health practitioners need to become forecasters and brainstormers. Emerging technologies and innovation stifled because of a broken system is unacceptable.  Accept the charge to think.

Kas is an industrial hygienist studying public health in the DC metro area.