Nanotechnology Report: More Research Needed to Determine EHS Risks

A report that evaluates the effectiveness of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) concludes that NNI needs to spearhead more research on the potential environmental, health and safety effects of nanotechnology.

The report written by the National Research Council's Committee to Review the National Nanotechnology Initiative asserts "EHS research needs to be accelerated and improved if the potential of nanotechnology is to be realized."

NNI is a program that was created to coordinate the federal research and development interests in nanotechnology. The program includes 25 federal agencies, 13 of which have R&D budgets for nanotechnology, according to the NNI Web site.

The report titled "A Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative" contends that NNI must facilitate "well-defined and reproducible" research, and develop and apply effective methods to:

  • "Estimate the exposure of humans, wildlife and other ecological receptors to [nanomaterials];
  • Assess effects on human health and ecosystems in both occupational and environmental exposure; and
  • Characterize, assess and manage the risks associated with exposure."

The report mentions that, according to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, "exposure to nanomaterials is most likely to occur during the manufacturing process," making research on the potential workplace EHS hazards of exposure to nanomaterials "the highest priority."

"But until that information becomes available, it is prudent to employ some precautionary measures to protect the health and safety of workers, the public and the environment," the report states.

Supporting "responsible development" of nanotechnology a rubric that includes worker safety and health is one of NNI's four stated goals. However, the allocation of resources for EHS research suggests it is not a high priority. The report notes that just 3.7 percent of NNI's fiscal-year 2006 budget was earmarked for EHS research, while another 4 percent was allocated for research on the ethical, legal and social implications of nanotechnology.

More than 320 Nanotech Consumer Products in Database

Despite all the unknowns regarding the risks, the use of engineered nanomaterials in consumer products pushes on. The Woodrow Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies lists more than 320 items in its nanotechnology consumer products inventory, including food storage bags and containers from Sharper Image that are "infused with naturally antibacterial silver nanoparticles," according to the company.

According to the Woodrow Wilson Center, nanotechnology was incorporated into more than $30 billion in manufactured goods in 2005. The center cites a Lux Research estimate that by 2014, $2.6 trillion in global manufactured goods will incorporate nanotechnology.

Even so, "A Matter of Size" notes that the body of published research examining the EHS risks of nanotechnology "is still relatively small." Consequently, the report asserts "it is not possible yet to make a rigorous assessment of the level of risk posed by [nanomaterials]."

The few studies that have been conducted on the EHS impact of engineered nanomaterials suggest "engineered nanomaterials can have adverse effects on the health of laboratory animals," according to the report.

"Nanomaterials have unusual and useful properties," the report says. "But their unique attributes make nanomaterials a double-edged sword: They can be tailored to yield special benefits but also can have unknown and possibly negative impacts, such as unexpected toxilogical and environmental effects."

Report: Overall, NNI Has Been a Success

While "A Matter of Size" says NNI needs to expand its EHS research, the report lauds NNI for its work toward achieving its other goals, which include maintaining a "world-class research and development program aimed at realizing the full potential of nanotechnology" and facilitating "transfer of new technologies into products for economic growth, jobs and other public benefit," as stated by NNI.

"In summary, considerable evidence indicates that the NNI is successfully coordinating nanoscale R&D efforts and interests across the federal government; catalyzing cooperative research and technology development across a spectrum of disciplines from engineering and the physical sciences to biosciences and biomedicine; and opening a host of new opportunities for scientific discoveries at the nanoscale …" the report says.

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