Research is Key to Safety When Tackling Unknown Aspects of Nanotechnology
How safe are some of the products we use daily? How can we insure that all is being done to protect citizens and the environment from the possibly harmful effects of nano-sized particles that are beginning to appear in commercial products? Science Democrats sought answers to these and other questions at a hearing to assess the environmental, health and safety impacts of nanotechnology.
"There seem to still be ample unanswered questions in this field, but what is clear is that commercialization of the technology is outpacing the development of science-based policies to assess and guard against adverse environmental, health and safety consequences. The horse is already out of the gate," said Ranking Member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN).
Nanoscience and nanotechnology involve studying and working with matter on an ultra-small scale. Nanomaterials are now present in some cosmetics and clothing and uses will become more widespread in the future. Despite that progress, there are as yet no established scientific protocols for either safety or environmental compatibility testing for nanomaterials.
The main source of the difficulty in characterizing the toxicity and other potential impacts of nanoparticles is that substances that are chemically identical can have entirely different properties when engineered at the nanoscale, compared to their bulk scale counterparts. Novel properties of a material, such as surface chemistry, reactivity, and electrical conductivity, can emerge as a particle made from the material reaches the nanoscale (billionths of a meter). And the properties are dependent not only on size but also on the shape of the particle.
Last month, the Nanomaterial Toxicity Screening Working Group of the International Life Sciences Institute Research Foundation/Risk Science Institute released a report that, for the first time, provides key elements of a toxicology screening strategy for engineered nanomaterials. The report, however, just looks at human health effects and does not address how to test impacts on the broader environment.
The lack of knowledge about the effects of nanoparticles and the absence of established methods to assess their impacts on the environment and human health is troubling since nanomaterials are already on the market, with an estimated 700 products made from or with nanotechnology or engineered nanomaterials.
"We're playing catch up here," added Rep. Gordon. "Prudence suggests the need for urgency in having the science of health and environmental implications catch up to or, even better, surpass the pace of commercialization. We need to develop the tools and procedures to determine if nanomaterials are harmful, and if so, what specific controls may be needed. We need to assess whether the National Nanotechnology Initiative is putting sufficient resources on this problem and is targeting it on the key issues."
The Science Committee has held several hearings to evaluate the promise of nanotechnology. And in 2003, the Committee took the lead in passing the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act (P.L. 108-153), which created the National Nanotechnology Initiative, now funded at over $1 billion per year. This hearing is the first look at the component of the interagency research program that addresses environmental, health, and safety aspects of the technology.
Dr. Richard Denison, a senior scientist with Environmental Defense testified today that current federal and private research efforts are far from adequate to address concerns about environmental and safety impacts of nanotechnology, and funding for such efforts should be substantially increased.
"The U.S. government, as the largest single investor in nanotechnology research and development, needs to spend much more to assess the health and environmental implications of nanotechnology and ensure that the critical research needed to identify potential risks is done expeditiously," Denison said.