Nanoparticles are really tiny manufactured objects, no bigger than a clump of atoms. They are being engineered into materials with unique electrical, chemical and optical properties. They are used in a wide array of products from cosmetics and food additives to solar cells and medical devices.
But concerns are growing that almost nothing is known about the risks these materials might pose to human health or the environment. Now, a federal science panel is calling for a systematic review of the safety of nanotechnology.
The nano market is booming. In 2009 developers generated $1 billion from the sale of nanomaterials. The global market for products that rely on these materials is expected to grow to $3 trillion by 2015.
Yet without a coordinated research plan to assess, manage and avoid risks to human health and the environment, the future of safe and sustainable nanotechnology is uncertain. That’s the conclusion of a new report by the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
“What we think we need and what we speak to in this report is how would we develop ways to predict what materials might be hazardous?” says Jonathan Samet, who heads the Institute for Global Health at the University of Southern California and chaired the expert panel that wrote the report.
For example, little is known about the health effects of nanomaterials being absorbed, inhaled or ingested, or what happens when nanomaterials escape into the environment. Samet says steps must be taken in the short-term to answer these questions, especially as new and more complex nanomaterials are engineered.
For example, understanding how materials might be released in the environment, what factors, what aspects of materials make them at potential to be released, to understand how materials actually interact with biological systems, whether it is a cell or an ecosystem.
The report sets out a five-year research plan to accomplish this agenda, beginning with a set of steps that need to be taken immediately.
“These relate to testing the right testing strategies, to having materials so we can calibrate across assays, to having the informatics, the databases, to pull the information together," Samet says, "to getting scientists to work together and then finally to having the right sort of coordinating management structure within our government to most efficiently address the problem.”
Public health and environmental activists have been calling for safeguards like these for years. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist working on health programs for the the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that compared to the huge commercial investments in research in development, spending for health and safety research lags far behind, even with key federal players like the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The problem is that agencies like EPA just have too little budget and the agencies that are doing research and development and advancing nanotechnology are much stronger financially,” Sass says.
This week the NRDC filed the first-ever lawsuit to block the use of a nano chemical in a commercial product - specifically, antimicrobial "nanosilver" used in clothing, baby blankets and other textiles. Sass says the EPA approved the chemical on the condition that safety data would be supplied over four years.
“And we don’t think that’s good enough. We think that these chemicals should not be in commercial products until they have been fully tested.”
Sass suggests consumers can fight back with their pocketbooks.
“So consumers can avoid buying things that say they are colored with nanosilver or advertise that they have antimicrobial or germ-fighting properties in the clothing. Nobody needs germ free clothing.”
The National Research Council report recommends replacing the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative that currently coordinates efforts across 25 government agencies, but has no authority over management, budget or research.
The committee also warns against cuts to the $120 million annual budget for nanotechnology health and safety research.
Samet says the panel will monitor progress in beginning this new assessment of nanotechnology, and report back to the U.S. Congress in eighteen months.