U.S. Agencies Hold First Public Meeting on Nanotechnology Safety

By Cheryl Pellerin
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - During the U.S. government's first public meeting January 4 on research needed to understand the effects of nanotechnology on the environment, health and safety, speakers from industry and technical groups called for a significant increase in research funding, a central source of technical information, and a master plan for identifying and reducing potential risks.

Nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, manipulating and manufacturing materials on a scale of between one nanometer and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter; a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office convened the meeting for the Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Technology.

The meeting focused on engineered nanoscale materials (nanomaterials) - those that have been manufactured deliberately or synthesized - rather than on those that occur naturally or are incidental byproducts of manufacturing, combustion or other human processes. (See related story.)

In its September 2006 report, Environmental, Health and Safety Research Needs for Engineered Nanoscale Materials, NSET described the environmental, health and safety research and information needed for making sound decisions on managing the risks posed by nanotechnology.

At the meeting, Norris Alderson, Office of the Associate Commissioner for Science at the Food and Drug Administration, and chairman of the NSET working group on Nanotechnology Environmental Health Implications, asked the public for input on the research areas published in the report and how to set priorities for the research.

The five general research areas addressed in the report are instrumentation, metrology (measurement) and analytical methods; nanomaterials and human health; nanomaterials and the environment; health and environmental surveillance; and risk management methods.

"This meeting is part of a process," Alderson told attendees, "for how we not only establish research priorities but how we keep evaluating where we are to ensure that we effectively utilize the dollars available to facilitate bringing this technology to the consumer."


Nanotechnology began as a concept in 1959 and remained theoretical until 1981, when scanning-tunneling microscopy made it possible for scientists to see and manipulate atomic structures like buckyballs (pure carbon with a spherical shape and hollow interior), discovered in 1985, and carbon nanotubes (carbon atoms that form extended hollow tubes), discovered in 1991.

Decades of basic and applied research have created a growing pipeline of nanoscale materials that are being processed in manufacturing facilities worldwide and used in nearly 400 consumer products or product lines involving electronics, medicines, cosmetics, automotive parts, clothing and more.

Manufacturers of nanomaterials and products are responsible for testing specific products for safety, assessing workplace safety and providing health surveillance, but a growing number of experts and government officials are questioning whether current health and safety regulations - developed before nanotechnology was possible - are adequate to monitor nanotechnology, which encompasses a broad range of technologies, processes and products.

Many potential benefits of nanotechnology arise from the fact that engineered nanomaterials have very different chemical, physical and biological properties than do materials at the everyday scale or in bulk.

For example, according to the 2006 NSET report, gold, which is valued for its nonreactive properties at an everyday scale, becomes highly reactive when prepared as three-nanometer particles. And new classes of materials, like new forms of carbon, have unique properties.

In October 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the manufacture of a new kind of carbon nanotube under the "low release and exposure exemption" of the Toxic Substances Control Act. It was the first time the agency approved a new chemical specifically identified as "nano."

"Scientific understanding of how engineered nanoscale materials of various compositions interact with biological systems is incomplete," the report says, and lists unanswered questions about nanomaterials, including whether current toxicity testing methods are appropriate for assessing the toxicity and potential biological effects of engineered nanoscale materials.


At the meeting, presenters from a range of companies and research and technical organizations made recommendations for research funding and priorities.

Since 2001, spending on nanotechnology research and development has increased 175 percent, to $1.3 billion in 2007.   In contrast, nanotechnology-related research into health, environment and safety was $35 million in 2005, $38 million in 2006, and the president's 2007 budget request calls for $44 million.

Paul Ziegler, representing the Nanotechnology Panel of the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry group, said research money for nanotechnology environmental safety and health effects should be commensurate with research and development funding. Nearly all presenters echoed his comments.

All presenters said top research priorities should be to address the uncertainties related to nanomaterials and protect workers from adverse effects of nanoscale technology. They also called for a central source or database of technical information on nanotechnology-related environmental safety and health effects.

"Nanotechnology is no longer a scientific curiosity. It is in the workplace, the environment, the home," said Andrew Maynard of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

"If people are to realize nanotechnology's benefits - in medicine, communications and energy production," he added, "the federal government needs a master plan for identifying and reducing potential risks."

More information about the U.S. government's nanotechnology program is available at the National Nanotechnology Initiative Web site.