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Nanotech Risks Not Studied, Researchers Say

Photonics.com
Dec 2005
WASHINGTON, Dec. 6 -- Governments aren't spending enough money to investigate the possible health, environmental and safety impacts of long-term exposure to nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes and nanopowders during government-funded research projects, according to information released by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a newly launched partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

More and more companies are using nanotechnology to improve their products, but many experts say safety research is trailing far behind the pace of commercialization and want the US Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies to regulate the emerging industry more strongly. In the first single inventory of largely government-funded research projects, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies found that there is a need for more resources, for a coherent risk-related research strategy and for public-private partnerships and international research collaborations.

“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 Andrew Maynard, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies’ chief scientist.

Total US spending on all nanotechnology research and development is currently approximately $3 billion per year —- about one-third of the estimated $9 billion invested worldwide by the public and private sectors combined. By 2015, the National Science Foundation projects that nanotechnology will have a $1 trillion impact on the world economy and employ 2 million workers globally.

“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 research and development (R&D). The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies’ inventory identifies about $27 million currently being spent by the US government to explore possible adverse health, environmental and safety impacts of engineered nanomaterials or nanoparticles,” said Maynard. “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,” according to Maynard.

Those involved in the inventory say 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 US 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 $200,000). These are important gaps that must be filled to ensure that nanotechnology is safely commercialized and accepted by the public as not harmful,” stated Maynard. “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.”

“This first inventory is not comprehensive, but it is the best available, detailed and scientifically-classified collection of data about nanotechnology risk-related research that exists either inside or outside government,” declared Maynard. “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.’”

In a US House of Representatives Committee on Science Hearing on Nov. 15 about the potential environmental and safety impacts of nanotechnology, Rejeski said, "Our experience with ultrafine aerosol particles (particles smaller than 100 nm that are typically a byproduct of a process) in the workplace has shown that inhalation of micro- and nanosized fibers and particles can lead to increased rates of cancer, lung disease, and adverse respiratory symptoms. I strongly feel it is time to launch an International Nanorisk Characterization Initiative (modeled roughly on the Human Genome Project) where we develop priorities across countries, align teams of researchers to address these priorities, and implement an information infrastructure to support global collaboration."

“The good news,” said Maynard, “is that the US appears to be spending more on environmental, health and safety research than any other government. The second-largest funder of risk-related research is the European Commission, which spends an estimated $7.5 million per year in partnership with industry through its multiyear Nanosafe2 and other programs.”

“The bad news is that current spending levels are not adequate to begin to answer the difficult environmental and human health impact questions raised by worker exposure to nanomaterials, by rapid consumer product commercialization and eventual disposal, and by concentrated environmental exposures from the possible application of nanoparticles to soil or water for remediation purposes in the future. These questions need answers, even though many of these new nanotechnology uses and applications have the potential to be cleaner and safer than existing alternatives,” Maynard said.

“But nanotechnology’s future depends on the willingness of government, business and public interest groups—both at home and abroad—to work together to build consumer trust and to tackle any potential health and environmental issues early. This inventory is a tremendous tool to help achieve this important goal,” Rejeski said.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies was launched in April 2005 by the Wilson Center and The Pew Charitable Trusts to help business, governments and the public anticipate and manage the possible human and environmental implications of nanotechnology. The inventory is available online at: www.nanotechproject.org



GLOSSARY
nanotechnology
The use of atoms, molecules and molecular-scale structures to enhance existing technology and develop new materials and devices. The goal of this technology is to manipulate atomic and molecular particles to create devices that are thousands of times smaller and faster than those of the current microtechnologies.
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