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Nanotech Safety, Side Effects, & Health Risks Study Urged

U.S. panel calls for probe into nanotech’s safety, health risks: It’s become a multibillion industry and sales are expected to expand rapidly in the next decade.

Currently, it’s used in a growing number of state-of-the-art products like special zinc oxide sunscreens that seem to glide on the skin, extremely high-memory computer hard discs, non-friction swimsuits that help Olympic athletes swim faster, and catalytic converter components for cars that remove pollutive particles even before these can be released into the air.

It also promises to revolutionize medicine and health care, electronics and computers, energy production and conservation, environmental cleanup and protection, and world security and defense.

Nanotechnology, involving the design and manufacture of materials on the tiny scale of one-billionth of a meter — one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair or less — is now used in areas ranging from stain-resistant clothing and cosmetics to food additives.

The Nanotechnology product sales reached US$225 billion in 2009 and the market is expected to grow to US$3 trillion by 2015.

But not enough is known about their potential environmental and health risks — and this should be studied further, says an expert panel of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in a report released on Jan. 25.

The wonders of nanotechnology bring amazing products like ultrathin LCD flat screens, high-tech product scanners, clothing and cosmetics.

But nanotech products can seep into the environment during manufacturing or disposal. They can also be ingested, inhaled or maybe absorbed through the skin, warns the panel of 19 scientists in its reports, published after a review of nanotechnology’s current state.

The panel was commissioned by the National Research Council (NRC), NAS’s research arm, to conduct the study. This was done at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Despite the promise of nanotechnology, without strategic research into emergent risks associated with it—and a clear understanding of how to manage and avoid potential risks—the future of safe and sustainable nanotechnology-based materials, products, and processes is uncertain,” the NAS says in its study report.

The report says that “critical gaps” in the understanding of the environmental, health and safety effects of engineered nanotechnology materials (ENMs) need to be closed.

How many nanoparticles of different kinds are being released into the environment? Who is being exposed to them? These basic questions still to be probed, the panel notes.

“There are some significant gaps that we need to address in order to move forward,” says Rebecca Klaper, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee ecologist, one of the report’s authors.

Insufficient research has been done on the health effects of ENMs that have been swallowed, inhaled or absorbed by humans, despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control says there are indications “that nanoparticles can penetrate the skin or move from the respiratory system to other organs.”

“At this time, the limited evidence available suggests caution when potential exposures to nanoparticles may occur,” the CDC says on its website.

The panel also laments that, right now, there is little research on the potential damage from more-complex ENMs that are expected to come into the market in the next decade.

More, the complexity of ENMs and their coatings make them challenging to assess as risks, the report notes. For example, a nanomaterial can change its surface properties depending on where it is, such as in lung fluid or air, the study says.

Without a coordinated research plan to help guide efforts to manage and avoid potential risks, the safety and sustainability of nanotechnology is uncertain, the panel says.

Four-part research
The panel called for the launching a four-part research effort focused ways to accelerate research progress, as well as identifying:
• sources of nanomaterial releases,
• processes that affect exposure and hazards,
• nanomaterial interactions at subcellular to ecosystem-wide levels.

“A lot of things are being done right, but we need to think about how to regroup those efforts to get more power from the punch,” the New York Times quotes Mark R. Wiesner, a Duke University engineering professor and a member of the panel, as saying.

As director of the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology at Duke, Wiesner leads a group studying the movement and effects of nanomaterials in the environment.

“We cannot knock these things off on a case-by-case basis,” Dr. Wiesner tells the Times in a telephone interview. “The number and variety of nanomaterials that is possible is just mind-boggling. There are not enough beakers to do all the experiments required.”

New federal body
The panel also recommends the creation of a new body that has the authority to direct federal safety research to replace the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), the body that currently coordinates federal agencies’ investments in sector research and development.

Since 2000, the NNI has coordinated the operations of various U.S. agencies that fund nanomaterials-risks research. But it was initially founded to promote job creation in industries that use nanotechnology, such as cosmetics and car manufacturing, and has since played a dual role—both promoting nanotechnology while also overseeing research on its risks.

“There’s a potential conflict,” says Wisconsin-Milwaukee ecologist Klaper. She said the NAS panel is pushing for the separation of the research oversight role from promotional activities.

The last time the NAS weighed in on nanotechnology was in a report in 2008 that criticized the NNI. In the new report, the academy acknowledged the NNI’s progress, but pointed out that “there has not been sufficient linkage between research and research findings and the creation of strategies to prevent and manage risk.”

The new body the NAS panel is recommending should be tasked to ensure that federal research is integrated with that from private business, universities and international organizations, the panel concludes.

The panel recommends additional funding and funding authority, saying the NNI needs additional budgetary authority to pull together the US$120 million that the U.S. now spends bit by bit on nanomaterials-risk research into a larger, better-coordinated effort.

The federal government has set aside US$123.5 million in its 2012 budget for ENM safety research, and that level should remain stable for about five years, the report said.

The panel also advises a small funding increase of around US$22 million–US$24 million per year, saying this would benefit research.

According to the panel, US$3 million to US$5 million a year should be invested on developing and providing benchmark nanomaterials, while US$2 million a year should be spent on identifying nanomaterials sources, and another US$2 million should go to developing research networks.

Public, private and international groups should designate another US$5 million a year for collecting and disseminating information on ENM, and US$10 million for instrumentation, it said.

The panel recommends that all the new spending should be kept in place for five year.

The chairman of the panel and University of Southern California epidemiologist, Dr. Jonathan M. Samet, says his group would revisit the issue in 18 months. By then, he says, “We will hope the planning is in place and the N.N.I. and others are moving forward” with research.

In December, the NAS, together with other experts, called for the accelerated development of standard reference materials in nanotechnology so that scientists can calibrate the materials they are testing relative to one another.

This was reported by the journal Nature in a report that month on concerns over the standards and quality of the nanotoxicology literature.

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