RAND issued a report on the October 2005 workshop that brought together nanotechnology and health experts and representatives from industry, insurance firms, labor unions and occupational health and safety organizations.
According to the RAND report, government resources should focus on assessing the toxicity of nanomaterials, understanding how workers are exposed to such materials and determining the effectiveness of measures to safeguard the health of workers. The multibillion-dollar investments in nanotechnology being made by private firms and the federal government will continue to be at risk if such steps are not taken, according to workshop participants.
"There are going to be hundreds of new nanotechnology products coming into the market over the next 10 years," said James Bartis, a RAND senior policy researcher and lead author of the report. "The system cannot handle that. Responsible development means devoting more funding and other resources to safety issues, especially as it applies to worker safety."
Nanotechnology involves the study and manipulation of engineered materials down to the size of a nanometer one billionth of a meter, or about one one-thousandth the thickness of a human hair. Because of their extremely small size, these nanomaterials can take on unusual physical and chemical properties that allow novel uses, but at the same time can create new health risks.
Although based on substances scientists already understand, nanomaterials essentially are new substances that can have properties that are very different from the bulk forms of the same chemicals. When present as small particles, some of these nanomaterials can penetrate deeply into the lungs, go through the skin, collect in various organs, and even pass through the blood-brain barrier.
The federal government has directed more than $1 billion annually toward the development of nanotechnology. But less than $10 million 1 percent of the total is being spent on research relevant to understanding and managing the risks of occupational exposure to nanomaterials.
"We expected worries from labor and the occupational health experts," said Eric Landree, a RAND researcher and report co-author. "What surprised us was how strongly industry and the insurance sector supported this view. They are worried about their workers' health and also the potential legal consequences."