Wednesday, December 10, 2008

NAS Report Finds "Serious Weaknesses" In U.S. Nano EH&S Plans

Dec 10: A new report -- Review of the Federal Strategy For Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health and Safety Research -- from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) National Research Council (NRC) finds "serious weaknesses" and is highly critical of the government's plan for research on the potential health and environmental risks posed by nanomaterials [See WIMS 2/20/08], which are increasingly being used in consumer goods and industry. The committee that wrote the report said, "An effective national plan for identifying and managing potential risks is essential to the successful development and public acceptance of nanotechnology-enabled products.

The committee did not evaluate whether current uses of nanomaterials represent unreasonable risks to the public. Rather, the report focused on what would constitute an effective national research strategy for ensuring that current and future uses of nanomaterials are without significant impacts on human health or the environment. Committee chair David Eaton, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle said, "The current plan catalogs nano-risk research across several federal agencies, but it does not present an overarching research strategy needed to gain public acceptance and realize the promise of nanotechnology."

According to the report, "The research plan, developed by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), does not provide a clear picture of the current understanding of these risks or where it should be in 10 years. Nor does the NNI plan include research goals to help ensure that nanotechnologies are developed and used as safely as possible. And though the research needs listed in the plan are valuable, they are incomplete, in some cases missing elements crucial for progress in understanding nanomaterials' health and safety impacts. A new national strategic plan is needed that goes beyond federal research to incorporate research from academia, industry, consumer and environmental groups, and other stakeholders."

According to a release from NAS, nanoscale engineering manipulates materials at the molecular and atomic level to create structures with unique and useful properties -- materials that are both very strong and very light, for example. More than 600 products involving nanomaterials are already on the market, the majority of them health and fitness products, such as skin care and cosmetics. And over the next decade, nanomaterials will be used increasingly in products ranging from medical therapies to food additives to electronics. The release says, "Growing use of nanomaterials means that more workers and consumers will be exposed to them, and uncertainties remain about their health and environmental effects; while nanomaterials can yield special benefits, they may also have unexpected and possibly toxic properties."

The report says NNI plan ". . . fails to identify some important areas that should to be investigated; for example, "Nanomaterials and Human Health" should include a more comprehensive evaluation of how nanomaterials are absorbed and metabolized by the body and how toxic they are at realistic exposure levels. . . the NNI plan overstates the degree to which already funded studies are meeting the need for research on health and environmental risks. . . In addition, the NNI strategy does not adequately incorporate input from industries that produce and use nanotechnologies, environmental and consumer advocacy groups, and other stakeholders, which is necessary to identify deficiencies in research strategies."

The committee said, "Accountability is also lacking in NNI's plan. Although lead agencies -- such as the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, among others -- are given roles for overseeing nanotechnology research, there is no single organization or person that will be held responsible for whether the strategy delivers results." Also, it is pointed out that, "The federal funding to specifically address nanotechnology-related environmental health and safety issues is actually far less than indicated in the NNI plan and may be inadequate. Probably less than half of the research projects described in the plan will ultimately yield useful data to support regulatory decision making. If no new resources are provided, the research generated cannot adequately evaluate the potential risks posed by nanomaterials."

The committee indicates that, "A truly robust national strategic plan would involve a broader group of stakeholders, and would consider the untapped knowledge of nongovernment researchers and academics. The plan should identify research needs clearly and estimate the resources necessary to address gaps, as well as provide specific, measurable objectives and a timeline for meeting them. It should also focus on providing solutions to challenges that do not fit neatly into disciplinary or institutional categories. The current structure of NNI would make developing a visionary and authoritative strategy difficult. NNI should continue to foster successful interagency coordination, with the aim of ensuring that the federal research strategy on the health and safety impacts of nanotechnology is an integral part of the broader national strategic plan."

Access a release from NAS (
click here). Access links to the complete 97-page report and 26-page executive summary (click here). Access the complete NNI EHS Strategy report (click here). Access the NNI website for additional information (click here). Access WIMS-EcoBizPort Nanotechnology links for additional information (click here). Access various WIMS eNewsUSA Blog posts on Nanotechnology issues (click here). [*Toxics]