News / Science & Technology

Panel Urges Study of Nanomaterial Risks

Materials are engineered into many products


Rosanne Skirble

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.

You May Like

Guatemala Mudslide Death Toll Rises to 86

Death toll is expected to continue to rise as emergency crews dig through tons of earth for an estimated 350 people still missing More

Goodbye Pocahontas: Photos Reveal Today's Real Native Americans

Weary of stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur is determined to reshape the public's perception of her people More

Debris Found in Search for Missing Ship

Objects located Sunday have not yet been confirmed to be from the 240 meter container ship, El Faro, which disappeared in the eye of Hurricane Joaquin, according to US Coast Guard More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs