Health and Environmental Impacts of Nanotechnology Explored

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Publication date: 
4 December 2006

Nanotechnology and its possible risks, both real and perceived, were the subject of a recent hearing, several documents, and a session at last month's Industrial Physics Forum of the American Institute of Physics.

Products containing nanomaterials are already on the market and generating billions of dollars in industry profits. Some estimates indicate that a worldwide market in the trillions of dollars could arise in the coming decade. However, there is concern within industry as well as from consumer and environmental groups that the environmental, health, and safety (EHS) consequences of nanotechnology are as yet largely unknown, and that real or perceived risks could dampen the growth of the market. "The enormous potential benefits of nanotechnology could be easily squandered if health and safety concerns are not satisfactorily addressed," said House Science Committee Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) at a hearing earlier this fall.


Gordon, Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), and non-government witnesses at the September 21 hearing contended that federal research efforts on EHS impacts need better planning, coordination, and funding. According to the hearing charter, the President has requested $1.3 billion in FY 2007 for nanotechnology R&D through the interagency National Nanotechnology Initiative. Of this amount, $44.1 million (3.5 percent of the total) is intended for research into environmental and safety implications. This would represent an almost 20 percent increase over FY 2006 funding for EHS research.

According to Matthew Nordan, the President of Lux Research Inc., while "nanotechnology EHS research in government agencies, academic institutions, and industrial facilities is expanding," it is "being performed in an ad hoc fashion according to individual priorities that both risk costly duplication of effort and raise the specter of key issues remaining unaddressed."

"Make no mistake, nanotechnology is different, and there will be some materials and products...that have the potential to cause harm," warned Andrew Maynard, Chief Science Advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Maynard told the committee that "current federally funded research is not addressing the general range of risks that may already be present in the market and...risk research is not guided by a careful consideration of needs."

In addition to better prioritization and planning, Boehlert declared that research into the EHS impacts of nanotechnology "is grossly underfunded. Conservative estimates of what's needed are more than twice as much as we're spending today." Nordan cited a "consensus widely held in industry and among non-governmental organizations" that funding of between $100 and $200 million annually is needed.


The hearing was the occasion for release of a long-awaited report by the Nanotechnology Environmental and Health Implications (NEHI) Working Group of the cabinet-level White House National Science and Technology Council. "Unfortunately," Gordon commented, "this is not the research plan with well-defined priorities and resource requirements we had expected to see." The report "doesn't fully set priorities, never mind assign them," Boehlert added. In introducing the report, Norris Alderson, the FDA Associate Commissioner for Science, noted that it was only a "first step in addressing the research needed" for "informed risk assessment and risk management of nanomaterials." The report lists five general research areas identified as necessary for evaluating EHS issues for nanomaterials: 1.) Instrumentation, metrology, and analytical methods; 2.) Nanomaterials and human health; 3.) Nanomaterials and the environment; 4.) Health and environmental surveillance; and 5.) Risk management methods. The report, "Environmental, Health, and Safety Research Needs for Engineered Nanoscale Materials," is available at


The Woodrow Wilson Center's Maynard is the first author of a paper on the "Safe Handling of Nanotechnology" that appeared in the November 16 issue of the journal Nature (see for more information). Boehlert and Gordon issued a joint statement commending this paper, saying that it "should be a landmark in the history of nanotechnology research. It lays out a clear, reasonable, prioritized, consensus-based set of priorities for examining the potential environmental and health consequences of nanotechnology over the next decade and a half." They add, "This paper should eliminate any remaining excuses for inaction in this vitally important area.... There is absolutely no reason that [participating] agencies and the White House should not now quickly put together a plan and a budget to implement the recommendations in the Nature paper as part of the fiscal 2008 budget."


Maynard was also one of the speakers at the AIP Industrial Physics Forum's November 14 session on Nanotechnology and Society, discussing oversight and management of potential risks. Other presenters included James Murday of the University of Southern California, speaking on EHS research needs; Michele Ostraat of DuPont Engineering Research and Technology, speaking on the Nanoparticle Occupational Safety and Health Consortium; Wei-xian Zhang of Lehigh University, speaking on the use of nanotechnology for soil and groundwater cleanup; and Ann Johnson of the University of South Carolina, speaking on the ethics of nanoscience and nanotechnology. Several of these presentations can be viewed at Other session topics included Nanotechnology Manufacturing and Emerging Materials and Devices.


In September, soon after the Science Committee hearing, a committee of the National Research Council also recommended that research into the environmental, health and safety implications of nanotechnology be expanded. This was one of the recommendations in the report, "A Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative." This report finds "considerable evidence" that "the NNI is successfully coordinating nanoscale R&D efforts and interests across the federal government; catalyzing cooperative research and technology development across a spectrum of disciplines" and "opening a host of new opportunities for scientific discoveries at the nanoscale." The NRC report, which runs approximately 176 pages, can be ordered for $33.75 at The Executive Summary and portions of the report can also be read on-line at this site.

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