A new report from the National Research Council questions the government’s current plan for research on the possible health and environmental risks posed by nanomaterials, which are increasingly being used in consumer products and other industry. The report emphasizes the need for an effective national plan for identifying and managing potential risks, a step seen as essential to the successful development and public acceptance of nanotechnology-enabled products.

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. MassTortDefense has posted about nano-issues before.

Growing use of nanomaterials means that more workers and consumers may be exposed to them, and uncertainties remain in the minds of some about their health and environmental effects; while nanomaterials can yield tremendous, special utility, they may also have possibly toxic risk properties.

The National Nanotechnology Initiative, which coordinates federal agency investments in nanoscale R&D, developed a research plan to investigate these risks, and the office that oversees NNI asked the National Research Council to review the plan.  (The NRC report was sponsored by the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.)  The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

The committee report did not focus on current uses of nanomaterials and any potential 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.

The current plan, involving nano-risk research across several federal agencies, lacks an overarching research strategy needed to gain public acceptance and realize the promise of nanotechnology, according to the report.  NNI’s plan identifies broad research categories for assessing health and environmental risks, and many of the research needs listed within these categories will aid risk assessment, the report says. But the plan fails to identify some important other areas that should 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. Furthermore, the current research plan, according to the report, does not provide a clear picture of the current understanding of these risks or where it should be in 10 years. And though the research needs listed in the plan are valuable, the NRC committee thinks they are incomplete, in some cases missing elements crucial for progress in understanding nanomaterials’ health and safety impacts.

In its assessment of gaps in existing research, the current NNI plan overstates the degree to which already funded studies are meeting the need for research on health and environmental risks, the report says. For example, more than half of the currently funded projects on nanotechnology and human health are aimed at developing therapies for diseases. While this research is important, it will not shed light on health risks that may be posed by nanomaterials. Moreover, the plan does not note the current lack of studies on how to manage consumer and environmental risks, such as how to manage accidents and spills or mitigate exposure through consumer products.

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 committee said. The current structure of NNI would make developing a new strategy difficult, says the report. 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.