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Federal Research Programs Must Be Realigned to Meet the Environmental and Economic Challenges of the Future
In an article recently published in the journal Science, a group of former senior federal officials call for the establishment of an independent Earth Systems Science Agency (ESSA) to meet the unprecedented environmental and economic challenges facing the nation. The group, which includes Woodrow Wilson Center program director David Rejeski and consultant Mark Schaefer, proposes forming the new agency by merging the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Charles Kennel, former Associate Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Director of Mission to Planet Earth, says, "Earth system science focuses on understanding current processes and predicting changes that will take place over the next hundred years. It merges earth, atmospheric, and ocean science into a panorama of the earth system as it is today and as it will be tomorrow. We need it to predict climate change and its impacts, and to help us mitigate and adapt to other changes that have the potential to affect our quality of life and economic well-being."
The article entitled "An Earth Systems Science Agency" points to the many scientific advantages of linking the atmospheric and marine programs of NOAA with the terrestrial, freshwater, and biological programs of USGS. Former NOAA administrator D. James Baker and former USGS director Charles Groat, among the seven coauthors of the paper, see important synergies in linking the two agencies.
According to Baker, "Population pressure, development impact, and resource extraction affect land and sea alike. Just as the science of the Earth is seamless, so should the government responsibility be merged for these separate Earth agencies."
Groat points to the breadth of capabilities the agency would possess. "The USGS, in bringing not only its geologic, biologic, hydrologic and geospatial expertise to the understanding of natural systems, but also its research capabilities in energy, mineral, water, and biologic resources, gives the new organization a comprehensive perspective on both environmental and resource systems. If we effectively link these capabilities with those of NOAA, we will have a powerful research institution," he says.
The authors express concern that federal environmental research, development, and monitoring programs are not presently structured to address such major environmental problems as global climate change, declines in freshwater availability and quality, and loss of biodiversity.
According to Donald Kennedy, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and past president of Stanford University, "It isn't often that we are offered a real opportunity to make government work better. But the modest, sensible reorganization proposed here brings a new science-rich focus on some of our biggest contemporary challenges."
Kennedy also stresses the importance of linking ESSA's activities with the tremendous talent in the nation's universities.
The authors recommend that no less than 25 percent of the new agency's budget be devoted to grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements with academic and nonprofit institutions.
ESSA's success will also hinge on the collaborative arrangements the agency makes with other federal departments and agencies. According to former presidential science adviser John H. Gibbons, "ESSA's effectiveness will depend upon the bridges it builds to other federal agencies, from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and National Science Foundation, to the Department of Energy and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency."
David Rejeski, who worked in both the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Council on Environmental Quality, emphasizes the importance of setting aside some of ESSA's budget to fund research and development with breakthrough potential. "The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has demonstrated the value of funding high-risk, high-reward research and development. ESSA should foster similar ventures in the environmental arena," Rejeski says.
The paper points to the direct link between research and development and economic growth. The work of NOAA and USGS already fuels a large, multi-billion dollar private sector enterprise.
Mark Schaefer, a former official at the Department of the Interior and the White House science office, adds, "The quality of life of future generations will be defined by the quality of the environment we hand down to them. Our nation's research and development enterprise must be better structured and directed if we are to have any chance of solving the tremendous environmental challenges of our time."
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Home > Press > New study shows inhaling long, thin carbon nanotubes may result in asbestos-related disease
Carbon Nanotubes That Look Like Asbestos, Behave Like Asbestos
New study shows inhaling long, thin carbon nanotubes may result in asbestos-related disease
Washington, DC | Posted on May 20th, 2008
A major study published today in Nature Nanotechnology suggests some forms of carbon nanotubes - a poster child for the "nanotechnology revolution" - could be as harmful as asbestos if inhaled in sufficient quantities.
The study used established methods to see if specific types of nanotubes have the potential to cause mesothelioma - a cancer of the lung lining that can take 30-40 years to appear following exposure. The results show that long, thin multi-walled carbon nanotubes that look like asbestos fibers, behave like asbestos fibers.
Discovered nearly 20 years ago, carbon nanotubes have been described as the wonder material of the 21st Century. Light as plastic and stronger that steel, they are being developed for use in new drugs, energy-efficient batteries and futuristic electronics. But since their discovery, questions have been raised about whether some of these nanoscale materials may cause harm and undermine a nascent market for all types of carbon nanotubes, including multi- and single-walled carbon nanotubes. Leading forecasting firms say sales of all nanotubes could reach $2 billion annually within the next four to seven years, according to an article in the U.S. publication Chemical & Engineering News.
"This study is exactly the kind of strategic, highly focused research needed to ensure the safe and responsible development of nanotechnology," says Andrew Maynard, Chief Science Advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies and a co-author on the paper. "It looks at a specific nanoscale material expected to have widespread commercial applications and asks specific questions about a specific health hazard. Even though scientists have been raising concerns about the safety of long, thin carbon nanotubes for over a decade, none of the research needs in the current U.S. federal nanotechnology environment, health and safety risk research strategy address this question."
Widespread exposure to asbestos has been described as the worst occupational health disaster in U.S. history and the cost of asbestos-related disease is expected to exceed $200 billion, according to major U.S. think tank RAND Corporation.
Anthony Seaton, MD, a co-author on the paper and a professor emeritus at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom, says, "The toll of asbestos-related cancer, first noticed in the 1950s and 1960s, is likely to continue for several more decades even though usage reduced rapidly some 25 years ago. While there are reasons to suppose that nanotubes can be used safely, this will depend on appropriate steps being taken to prevent them from being inhaled in the places they are manufactured, used and ultimately disposed of. Such steps should be based on research into exposure and risk prevention, leading to regulation of their use. Following this study, the results of which were foreseen by the Royal Society in the U.K. in 2004, we can no longer delay investing in such research."
Researchers, led by Professor Kenneth Donaldson at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, examined the potential for long and short carbon nanotubes, long and short asbestos fibers, and carbon black to cause pathological responses known to be precursors of mesothelioma. Material was injected into the abdominal cavity of mice - a sensitive predictor of long fiber response in the lung lining.
"The results were clear," says Donaldson. "Long, thin carbon nanotubes showed the same effects as long, thin asbestos fibers."
Asbestos fibers are harmful because they are thin enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, but sufficiently long to confound the lungs' built-in clearance mechanisms for getting rid of particles.
Donaldson stresses there are still pieces of the puzzle to fill in. "We still don't know whether carbon nanotubes will become airborne and be inhaled, or whether, if they do reach the lungs, they can work their way to the sensitive outer lining. But if they do get there in sufficient quantity, there is a chance that some people will develop cancer-perhaps decades after breathing the stuff," states Donaldson.
There is a silver lining to this research. According to Donaldson, "Short or curly carbon nanotubes did not behave like asbestos, and by knowing the possible dangers of long, thin carbon nanotubes, we can work to control them. It's a good news story, not a bad one. It shows that carbon nanotubes and their products could be made to be safe."
But Donaldson added that the present study only tested for fiber-like behavior and did not exonerate carbon nanotubes from damaging the lungs in other ways. "More research is still needed if we are to understand how to use these materials as safely as possible," he notes.
Carbon nanotubes are atom-thick sheets of graphite formed into cylinders. They may be formed from a single layer of graphite or they may consist of multiple concentric layers of graphite, resulting in multi-walled carbon nanotubes. While the diameter of a nanotube can vary from a few nanometers up to tens of nanometers, they can be hundreds or even thousands of nanometers long. Carbon nanotubes come in many forms, with different shapes, different atomic arrangements, and varying amounts and types of added chemicals-all of which affect their properties and might influence their impact on human health and the environment.
"This is a wakeup call for nanotechnology in general and carbon nanotubes in particular," says Maynard. "As a society, we cannot afford not to exploit this incredible material, but neither can we afford to get it wrong-as we did with asbestos."
A PDF of the paper can be found on the journal's website: www.nature.com/nnano
Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture things usually between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter; a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide. In 2007, nanotechnology was incorporated into more than $88 billion in manufactured goods. Lux Research projects that figure will grow to $2.6 trillion by 2014, or about 15% of total global output.
About The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (www.nanotechproject.org) is an initiative launched by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2005. It is dedicated to helping business, government and the public anticipate and manage possible health and environmental implications of nanotechnology.
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