WASHINGTON -- A new report from the National Research Council finds serious weaknesses in the government's plan for research on the potential health and environmental risks posed by nanomaterials, which are increasingly being used in consumer goods and industry. An effective national plan for identifying and managing potential risks is essential to the successful development and public acceptance of nanotechnology-enabled products, emphasized the committee that wrote the report.
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.
"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," said committee chair David Eaton, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, School of Public Health, and associate vice provost for research at the University of Washington, Seattle.
The research plan, developed by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, does not provide a clear picture of the current understanding of these risks or where it should be in 10 years, says the new report. 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, the committee concluded.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
In its assessment of gaps in existing research, the 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.
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. On their own, federal agencies tend to ask what research they can do within their existing capabilities, rather than asking what research should be done. Accountability is also lacking in NNI's plan, the committee noted. 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.
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, the report says. 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 said.
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 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.
Although the NNI plan will provide useful input, a truly national strategy cannot be developed within the limitations faced by NNI, the committee concluded. 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.