Tiny Yes, But Are They Safe?

With more than $32 billion worth of nanotechnology products already on the market, the United States needs to set up a systematic, $50-million-a-year effort to investigate the potential human health and environmental safety risks of nanomaterials. That's according to a report released today by Andrew Maynard, chief scientist for the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars' Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies in Washington, D.C. But at least one federal official who helps coordinate nanotechnology research says that much of what the report advocates is being done already.

Nanomaterials have long been darlings of the research world because their small size gives them unique chemical, electrical, and light-emitting behaviors. But because those particles can get inside cells, toxicologists need to take a careful look at their safety (ScienceNOW, 15 June). The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) currently spends around $11 million a year on research that's "highly relevant" to environmental health and safety (EH&S), a tiny fraction of its more than $1 billion budget, according to the report. Critics argue that the safety effort is not well coordinated. "People are all over the place, doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that," says David Warheit, a toxicologist at DuPont in Newark, Delaware. That ad hoc approach creates "significant knowledge gaps" on the fate of nanoparticles, Maynard says. "At best, these gaps create uncertainties--and at worst dangers--for workers, companies, consumers, investors, and insurers," he adds.

Maynard argues that the federal government needs an overarching strategy and comprehensive set of research priorities. Initially, these would be aimed at measuring the human and environmental exposure to nanomaterials and their toxicity. Eventually, the goal would be to accurately predict the impact of the hundreds of nanomaterials being engineered around the globe. The process should be led by federal agencies with a clear mandate for overseeing EH&S risk, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Research should also be coordinated internationally, and the costs should be shared with industry where possible.

Paolo Gargini, the Director of Technology Strategy of Intel Corporation, a leading semiconductor chip maker in Santa Clara, California, calls the new report "an important contribution to building much needed consensus around the need for focused research into the implications, as well as the applications, of nanotechnology." Clayton Teague, who directs the U.S. National Nanotechnology Coordination Office that helps to coordinate research efforts among the 25 funding agencies that participate in the NNI, agrees. But he argues that current EH&S funding is $44 million rather than Maynard's estimate of $11 million, and that agencies already cooperate to set research priorities and even fund shared research projects. Teague says the coordinated federal EH&S agenda is expected to be outlined in a report due to be released within the next two months.

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