Report: Life Cycle Assessment Essential to Safe Nanotech Commercial Development

Life cycle assessment (LCA) -- a cradle-to-grave look at the health and environmental impact of a material, chemical or product -- is an essential tool for ensuring the safe, responsible and sustainable commercialization of nanotechnology, U.S. and European experts conclude in a report issued on March 20.

With the number of nanotechnology-enabled products entering the market expected to grow dramatically -- from $30 billion in 2005 to $2.6 trillion in global manufactured goods using nanotechnology by 2014 -- "numerous uncertainties exist regarding possible impacts on the environment and human health," the authors stated in Nanotechnology and Life Cycle Assessment: A Systems Approach to Nanotechnology and the Environment.

According to the report, wisely implemented assessment tools such as LCA can help corporations and researchers determine likely environmental impacts at various stages in a new nanotechnology product's life cycle. It also enables governments, industry and consumers to compare the environmental performance of a novel nanotech product with that of conventional products already on the market.

Based on discussions among 27 international nanotechnology and LCA experts at a two-day workshop held in October 2006, the report is being simultaneously released by the European Commission (EC) and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, an initiative of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable Trusts. The workshop was organized by the project in cooperation with the EC, with assistance from EPA's Office of Research & Development and International Society for Industrial Ecology. Barbara Karn, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies visiting scientist, and Maria Pilar Aguar, from the EC's Research Directorate-General (DG RTD), planned and organized the workshop.

The authors of the report concluded that the existing International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and other widely used frameworks for LCA are fully applicable to nanomaterials and nanoproducts.

However, according to the report, the specificity of LCA results for nanotechnology products will be limited by the "lack of data and understanding" in areas central to the accurate assessment of the environmental, human health, and safety effects of a particular nanomaterial or process.

"The lack of toxicity data specific to nanomaterials is a repeating theme in this and in other studies related to nanotech environmental, health, and safety concerns," said Andrew Maynard, chief scientist for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. "Nanotechnology is no longer a scientific curiosity. Its products are in the workplace, the environment and home. But if people are to realize nanotechnology's benefits -- in electronics, medicine, sustainable energy, and better materials for building, clothing and packaging -- the federal government needs an effective risk research strategy and sufficient funding in agencies responsible for oversight to do the job."

Project visiting scientist Barbara Karn stated: "The report calls for international cooperation and coordination -- among governments, university researchers, corporations, and consumer and other groups --to help address critical data needs. It also highlights the need for nano-specific protocols and practical methodologies for toxicology studies, fate and transport studies, and scaling approaches."

According to the report, despite incomplete information, LCA can be useful now, as long as uncertainties and data gaps are clearly stated. Results can help to focus attention on high-priority products and issues with the aim of eliminating critical unknowns and encouraging life-cycle thinking during the first wave of nanotechnology innovation.

"It is important that nanotechnology, which has the potential to improve the quality of life in all parts of the world, is developed in a responsible way. This includes conducting the research and development needed to take into account the impact of nanomaterials and products throughout their whole life cycle," said Renzo Tomellini, head of the Nano- and Converging Sciences and Technologies Unit in the EC's DG RTD and chair of the European Commission Interservice Group on Nanotechnology. "The European Commission is committed to working together with international partners to ensure that this critical work takes place. This report is a useful step toward fulfilling that goal."

The report is available at http://www.nanotechproject.org and http://cordis.europa.eu/nanotechnology.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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