Nanomaterials safety research: National Academies sound alarm and urges cohesive plan | The American Ceramic Society Skip to content

Nanomaterials safety research: National Academies sound alarm and urges cohesive plan

Framework for new report by a committee of the National Research Council for the National Academies. Credit: NRC.

Nano environmental health and safety is clearly an important topic and one that is frequently referenced at materials conferences I have attended. But despite all the balloon juice, it seems to me that work over the last few years on research, documentation and development of databases on the safety and health of various nanomaterials hasn’t gone very far.

Good people at NIST, NIH and other institutions have been working for at least five year on trying to get some momentum going, and I do get that the nano EHS work is complicated (and that there yet seems to be even a common language among various researchers and between the research and industry communities) and expensive, but unfortunately, it feels like there is little substantial progress being made.

I think the National Academies agrees:

The committee that wrote the [a new report from the National Research Council] found that over the last seven years there has been considerable effort internationally to identify research needs for the development and safe use of nanotechnology, including those of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which coordinates US federal investments in nanoscale research and development. However, there has not been sufficient linkage between research and research findings and the creation of strategies to prevent and manage any risks. For instance, little progress has been made on the effects of ingested nanomaterials on human health and other potential health and environmental effects of complex nanomaterials that are expected to enter the market over the next decade. Therefore, there is the need for a research strategy that is independent of any one stakeholder group, has human and environmental health as its primary focus, builds on past efforts, and is flexible in anticipating and adjusting to emerging challenges, the committee said.

The committee recommends four research categories “which should be addressed within five years:”

  • Identify and quantify the nanomaterials being released and the populations and environments being exposed;
  • Understand processes that affect both potential hazards and exposure;
  • Examine nanomaterial interactions in complex systems ranging from subcellular to ecosystems; and
  • Support an adaptive research and knowledge infrastructure for accelerating progress and providing rapid feedback to advance research.

Will Washington fund such efforts? It’s hard to know given the political environment, and the NRC warns, “[A]ny reduction in the current funding level of approximately $120 million per year over the next five years for health and environmental risk research by federal agencies would be a setback to nanomaterials risk research.”

NRC also says other public, private and global resources will be needed in the areas of “informatics, nanomaterial characterization, benchmarking nanomaterials, characterization of sources and development of networks for supporting collaborative research.”

I haven’t had a chance to read the 200+ page report, but the summary seems to contain a fairly thorough strategy, with one exception: It’s not very helpful in suggesting how to implement the strategy, which always has seemed to me to be the weakness in these discussions. Someone logically has to be given the power and resources to wrangle all of the stakeholders.

What about the NNI? Can it spearhead the effort? The committee astutely puts the kybosh on that notion, at least with the current configuration of NNI agencies:

The committee said that the current structure of the NNI — which has only coordinating functions across federal agencies and no top-down budgetary or management authority to direct nanotechnology-related environmental, health, and safety research — hinders its accountability for effective implementation. In addition, there is concern that dual and potentially conflicting roles of the NNI, such as developing and promoting nanotechnology while identifying and mitigating risks that arise from its use, impede application and evaluation of health and environmental risk research. To carry out the research strategy effectively, a clear separation of management and budgetary authority and accountability between promoting nanotechnology and assessing potential environmental and safety risks is essential.

Its not clear to me if the NRC/NAS has an alternative to the NNI leadership in mind, or just a restructuring of NNI, but the committee says whatever group is in charge will require “sufficient management and budgetary authority to direct development and implementation of a federal EHS strategy across NNI agencies and to ensure integration of federally supported EHS research with research undertaken by the private sector, the academic community and international organizations.” In other words, the dual NNI responsibilities of simultaneously promoting nanomaterials and assessing their EHS effects generates lots of conflicts and therefore accountability for the two should be clearly separated.

Addendum from Eileen: The Danish have taken a first stab at addressing exactly this issue, according to a press release published today. The Danish Environmental Protection Agency, the Technical University of Denmark and the National Research Centre for the Working Environment collaborated on developing a database concept for cataloging and evaluating the risks associated with nanomaterials. The Executive Summary of the report (pdf) explains:

Through this project, DTU Environment and the National Research Centre for the Working Environment have initiated the development of a screening tool, NanoRiskCat (NRC), that is able to identify, categorize and rank expo- sures and effects of nanomaterials used in consumer products based on data available in the peer-reviewed scientific literature and other regulatory relevant sources of information and data. The primary focus was on nanomaterials relevant for professional end-users and consumers as, as well as nanomaterials released into the environment.

They used nanosized TiO2 (used in sunscreens) and C60 (used in lubricants) as demonstration materials for the database.

To make it easy to evaluate risks quickly, a color coded five-dot system was developed, where the first three dots “refer to potential exposure of professional end-users, consumers and the environment,” and the last two dots “refer to the hazard potential for humans and the environment.”

The color code scheme is the universally recognized red, yellow and green, corresponding to high, medium and low risks. In cases where the risk is unknown, the dot is grey.