EPA Report Looks at Potential Risks, Benefits of Nanotechnology

A panel of experts is reviewing an EPA draft white paper that eventually could help set the stage for crafting environmental, health and safety regulations for nanotechnology.

The draft white paper was written by EPA's Nanotechnology Workgroup, which the agency's Science Policy Council formed in December 2004 to study the potential environmental risks and benefits of nanotechnology. The public comment period for the paper ended Jan. 31.

When EPA unveiled the draft white paper for public comment in December, it called the paper "a roadmap that identifies critical questions that must be addressed in order for the United States to reap the potential environmental and economic benefits of nanotechnology" as well as a discussion of the "risk management of possible negative impacts of the new technologies."

The draft white paper points out that EPA for the past 5 years "has played a leading role" in researching the potential health and environmental impact of nanotechnology as well as ways nanotechnology can be used to clean up the environment.

"For EPA, nanotechnology has evolved from a futuristic idea to watch to a current issue to address," the white paper states.

The agency says it will use the white paper "to address research needs and risk assessment issues concerning nanotechnology."

Paper Makes Research Recommendations

The introduction to the 123-page draft white paper notes nanotechnology "presents new opportunities to create better materials and products" and "has the potential to improve the environment, both through direct applications of nanomaterials to detect, prevent and remove pollutants as well as indirectly by using nanotechnology to design cleaner industrial processes and create environmentally friendly products."

"However, there are unanswered questions about the impacts of nanomaterials and nanoproducts on human health and the environment, and [EPA] has the obligation to ensure that potential risks are adequately understood to protect human health and the environment," the white paper states.

To help EPA set its short-term priorities for nanotechnology, the paper makes a number of recommendations. Among them, the paper encourages EPA to:

  • Support the development of approaches that promote pollution prevention, sustainable resource use and good product stewardship in the production and use of nanomaterials.
  • Spearhead research to better understand and apply information regarding nanomaterials' :
    • Chemical identification and characterization;
    • Environmental fate;
    • Environmental detection and analysis;
    • Potential releases and human exposures;
    • Human health effects assessment;
    • Ecological effects assessment; and
    • Environmental technology applications.
  • Conduct case studies on several engineered or manufactured nanomaterials.
  • Continue and expand its collaborations regarding nanomaterial applications and potential human health and environmental implications.
  • Convene a standing cross-agency group to foster information-sharing on nanotechnology science and policy issues.
  • Continue and expand its nanotechnology training activities for scientists and managers.

"Nanotechnology has emerged as a growing and rapidly changing field," the paper says. "New generations of nanomaterials will evolve, and with them new and possibly unforeseen environmental issues. It will be crucial that the agency's approaches to leveraging the benefits and assessing the impacts of nanomaterials continue to evolve in parallel with the expansion of and advances in these new technologies."

Nanotech Company: White Paper Falls Short

Reno, Nev.-based Altair Nanotechnologies Inc. (Altairnano), which is developing a high-power lithium ion battery using nanomaterials, responded to EPA's draft nanotechnology white paper with high praise for some aspects of the paper such as its recommendations related to environmental stewardship but also with concern that the paper does not adequately address the subject of federal funding for research and development.

"An otherwise excellent report, this draft falls short of our expectations in one area: providing a compendium of federal funding programs that could support private-sector and public/private-sector collaborations to fill current research gaps," CEO Alan Gotcher said. "Since nanomaterial innovators and nano-commercializers are on the ones on the ground, it's critical to have them collaborating with government and academic research groups in these R&D programs."

In Altairnano's response to the draft nanotechnology white paper, Gotcher points out that "broad federal funding is warranted due to the greater public good serve through creation of increased knowledge."

"This is a key moment in time," Gotcher says in Altairnano's response. "EPA could and should provide the industry a service by creating a portal to federal funding that is available to address the R&D gaps identified in this report."

Environmental Impact Being Studied

Altairnano, which employs about 60 workers at facilities in Reno and Anderson, Ind., calls itself "a leading supplier and innovator of advanced ceramic nanomaterial technology." The company currently is testing prototypes of a nano-structured, lithium ion battery cell that would recharge in about 3 minutes and have a life of more than 10 years, Gotcher told Occupationalhazards.com.

As an example of how government and the private sector can collaborate on nanotechnology research, Gotcher notes that Altairnano has been working with the University of Nevada, the University of California-Santa Barbara and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to study the environmental and biological impact of the company's nanomaterials.

The company uses intense heat anywhere from 550 to 750 degrees centigrade to fuse particles with a diameter of 30 to 40 nanometers into "nanostructured aggregates" that typically are 1 to 3 microns in size, Gotcher explained.

"The objectives of the work with NIOSH is to look at the worker exposure to these nanostructured aggregates," Gotcher said. "So far, we're well below the guidelines for pigment and ultrafine particles."

The university researchers are collecting and analyzing air samples at Altairnano's Reno facility to see if the nanostructured aggregates are harmful to biological cells. The preliminary data indicates that there is no harmful impact, Gotcher said.

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