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Home > Press > Federal Research Plan Inadequate to Shed Light on Health and Environmental Risks Posed by Nanomaterials

Abstract:
A new report from the National Research Council finds serious weaknesses in the government's plan for research on the potential health and environmental risks posed by nanomaterials, which are increasingly being used in consumer goods and industry. An effective national plan for identifying and managing potential risks is essential to the successful development and public acceptance of nanotechnology-enabled products, emphasized the committee that wrote the report.

Federal Research Plan Inadequate to Shed Light on Health and Environmental Risks Posed by Nanomaterials

Washington, DC | Posted on December 10th, 2008

The committee did not evaluate whether current uses of nanomaterials represent unreasonable risks to the public. Rather, the report focused on what would constitute an effective national research strategy for ensuring that current and future uses of nanomaterials are without significant impacts on human health or the environment.

"The current plan catalogs nano-risk research across several federal agencies, but it does not present an overarching research strategy needed to gain public acceptance and realize the promise of nanotechnology," said committee chair David Eaton, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, School of Public Health, and associate vice provost for research at the University of Washington, Seattle.

The research plan, developed by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, does not provide a clear picture of the current understanding of these risks or where it should be in 10 years, says the new report. Nor does the NNI plan include research goals to help ensure that nanotechnologies are developed and used as safely as possible. And though the research needs listed in the plan are valuable, they are incomplete, in some cases missing elements crucial for progress in understanding nanomaterials' health and safety impacts. A new national strategic plan is needed that goes beyond federal research to incorporate research from academia, industry, consumer and environmental groups, and other stakeholders, the committee concluded.

Nanoscale engineering manipulates materials at the molecular and atomic level to create structures with unique and useful properties - materials that are both very strong and very light, for example. More than 600 products involving nanomaterials are already on the market, the majority of them health and fitness products, such as skin care and cosmetics. And over the next decade, nanomaterials will be used increasingly in products ranging from medical therapies to food additives to electronics.

Growing use of nanomaterials means that more workers and consumers will be exposed to them, and uncertainties remain about their health and environmental effects; while nanomaterials can yield special benefits, they may also have unexpected and possibly toxic properties. The National Nanotechnology Initiative, which coordinates federal agency investments in nanoscale R&D, developed a research plan to investigate these risks, and the office that oversees NNI asked the National Research Council to review the plan.

NNI's plan identifies broad research categories for assessing health and environmental risks, and many of the research needs listed within these categories will aid risk assessment, the report says. But the plan fails to identify some important areas that should to be investigated; for example, "Nanomaterials and Human Health" should include a more comprehensive evaluation of how nanomaterials are absorbed and metabolized by the body and how toxic they are at realistic exposure levels.

In its assessment of gaps in existing research, the NNI plan overstates the degree to which already funded studies are meeting the need for research on health and environmental risks, the report says. For example, more than half of the currently funded projects on nanotechnology and human health are aimed at developing therapies for diseases. While this research is important, it will not shed light on health risks that may be posed by nanomaterials. Moreover, the plan does not note the current lack of studies on how to manage consumer and environmental risks, such as how to manage accidents and spills or mitigate exposure through consumer products.

In addition, the NNI strategy does not adequately incorporate input from industries that produce and use nanotechnologies, environmental and consumer advocacy groups, and other stakeholders, which is necessary to identify deficiencies in research strategies. On their own, federal agencies tend to ask what research they can do within their existing capabilities, rather than asking what research should be done. Accountability is also lacking in NNI's plan, the committee noted. Although lead agencies -- such as the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, among others -- are given roles for overseeing nanotechnology research, there is no single organization or person that will be held responsible for whether the strategy delivers results.

The federal funding to specifically address nanotechnology-related environmental health and safety issues is actually far less than indicated in the NNI plan and may be inadequate, the report says. Probably less than half of the research projects described in the plan will ultimately yield useful data to support regulatory decision making. If no new resources are provided, the research generated cannot adequately evaluate the potential risks posed by nanomaterials, the committee said.

A truly robust national strategic plan would involve a broader group of stakeholders, and would consider the untapped knowledge of nongovernment researchers and academics, the committee said. The plan should identify research needs clearly and estimate the resources necessary to address gaps, as well as provide specific, measurable objectives and a timeline for meeting them. It should also focus on providing solutions to challenges that do not fit neatly into disciplinary or institutional categories.

Although the NNI plan will provide useful input, a truly national strategy cannot be developed within the limitations faced by NNI, the committee concluded. The current structure of NNI would make developing a visionary and authoritative strategy difficult. NNI should continue to foster successful interagency coordination, with the aim of ensuring that the federal research strategy on the health and safety impacts of nanotechnology is an integral part of the broader national strategic plan. 

The report was sponsored by the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. A committee roster follows.

Copies of Review of the Federal Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health, and Safety Research are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at www.nap.edu. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed below).

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About National Research Council
NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL

Division on Earth and Life Studies

Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology

and

National Materials Advisory Board

Committee on Review of the Federal Strategy to Address Environmental, Health,

and Safety Research Needs for Engineered Nanoscale Materials



David L. Eaton (chair)

Professor of Environmental Health

and Occupational Health Sciences

School of Public Health and Community Medicine

University of Washington

Seattle

Martin A. Philbert (vice chair)

Professor of Toxicology

School of Public Health, and

Executive Director
Center for Risk Science and

Communication
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

George V. Alexeeff

Deputy Director for Scientific Affairs
Office of Environmental Health

Hazard Assessment
California Environmental Protection

Agency
Oakland

Tina Bahadori

Managing Director

Long-Range Research Initiative
American Chemistry Council
Arlington, Va.

John M. Balbus

Chief Health Scientist, and

Director

Health Program

Environmental Defense Fund

Washington, D.C.

Moungi G. Bawendi *

Lester Wolfe Professor in Chemistry
Department of Chemistry
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge



Pratim Biswas

Professor and Chair
Department of Energy, Environmental,

and Chemical Engineering

Washington University
St. Louis

Vicki L. Colvin

Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering

Department of Chemistry and Chemical and Biomolecular

Engineering

Rice University

Houston

Stephen J. Klaine 

Professor

Departments of Biological Sciences and Environmental Toxicology

Clemson University

Pendleton, S.C.

Andrew D. Maynard

Chief Science Adviser

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Washington, D.C.

Nancy A. Monteiro-Riviere

Professor

Center for Chemical Toxicology Research

College of Veterinary Medicine

North Carolina State University

Raleigh

Gunter Oberdorster

Professor of Toxicology
Department of Environmental

Medicine
University of Rochester School of

Medicine and Dentistry
Rochester, N.Y.

Mark A. Ratner *

Charles and Emma Morrison Professor

of Chemistry

Department of Chemistry

Northwestern University

Evanston, Ill.

Justin G. Teeguarden

Senior Scientist

Biological Monitoring and Modeling
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Richland, Wash.

Mark R. Wiesner

Professor of Civil and Environmental

Engineering
Pratt School of Engineering
Duke University
Durham, N.C.

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Eileen Abt

Study Director

* Member, National Academy of Sciences

For more information, please click here

Contacts:
Sara Frueh
Media Relations Officer

Jennifer Walsh
Media Relations Officer

Alison Burnette
Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138

Copyright © National Research Council

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