New Inventory Of Research Into Nanotechnology's Health, Environmental Effects

A new inventory of research into nanotechnology's potential environmental, human health, and safety effects (EH&S) shows the need for more resources, for a coherent risk-related research strategy, and for public-private partnerships and international EH&S research collaborations. These are the key conclusions drawn from the first single inventory of largely government-funded research projects exploring nanotechnology's possible EH&S impacts, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars announced on Nov. 30.

The inventory is publicly available online at http://www.nanotechproject.org or http://www.wilsoncenter.org/nano. It was compiled and released by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The project is a partnership of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Wilson Center.

"For the first time, policymakers, corporations and others can access and assess the scope, quality and efficacy of federally-funded research projects examining nanotechnology's potential human health and environmental effects. The inventory gives government officials and scientists in industry and academe the opportunity to work together. It enables them to develop a coherent research roadmap and to set research priorities. It helps makes possible the planning necessary to create public-private sector partnerships and international collaborations for risk-related nanotechnology research programs in the future," said Dr. Andrew Maynard, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies' chief scientist.

Too Little Being Spent on Future Effects of Nano Toxicity

Total U.S. spending on all nanotechnology research and development (R&D) now stands at approximately $3 billion per year-about one-third of the estimated $9 billion invested worldwide by the public and private sectors combined.

"The federal government's National Nanotechnology Initiative estimates that approximately $39 million annually in government funds-out of total expenditures of about $1 billion-are directed at environmental, health, and safety R&D. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies' inventory identifies about $27 million currently being spent by the U.S. government to explore possible adverse health, environmental and safety impacts of engineered nanomaterials or nanoparticles," Maynard said. "That limited investment is focused on research into human toxicity studies and some direct environmental impacts. Very little is being spent to investigate common workplace safety issues like the risk of explosion in production of nanopowders."

"In addition, most of this investment focuses on first generation nanotechnologies, many of which are already in the marketplace. Virtually none deals with future generations of nanomaterials," Maynard said.

Little funding is allocated to explore possible links between exposure to nanomaterials and diseases of the lung, heart or skin. Similar to last year's Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering study (July 2004), the Project's scientists are not able to identify U.S. government-sponsored epidemiological research looking at the relationship between exposure and possible long-term health outcomes during the manufacture of nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes.

"Specifically, out of a total of 161 federally-funded, risk-related projects, the Project's scientists found only 15 relevant to occupation-caused physical injury (totaling $1.7 million), and only two highly relevant projects on the long-term environmental and occupational exposures that potentially could cause disease (totaling $0.2 million). These are important gaps that must be filled to ensure that nanotechnology is safely commercialized and accepted by the public as not harmful," Maynard said. "In particular, more research is needed to address the potential life-cycle impacts of nanotechnology-based products as they move from manufacture to use and to eventual disposal."

Inventory Is Critical Start, But Global Action Is Needed

"This first inventory is not comprehensive, but it is the best available, detailed and scientifically-classified collection of data about nanotechnology EH&S risk-related research that exists either inside or outside government," Maynard said. "It is intended to be international and expanding, and will be regularly updated."

Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies director David Rejeski noted that "Some experts suggest that existing funding for risk-related nanotechnology research must be doubled or tripled. Realistically, no single country is likely to have adequate resources to cover all risk assessment needs, especially as nanotechnologies advance and become more complex and pervasive. What is clear from the inventory is that increased funding must be associated with an overarching research strategy and partnerships, if critical issues are to be addressed with 'due diligence'."

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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