Experts Deride U.S. Plan to Assess Nanotech Risks

WASHINGTON, DC, December 11, 2008 (ENS) - The U.S. government's plan to research the potential health and environmental risks from engineered nanomaterials is woefully inadequate, an expert panel of the National Research Council said Wednesday. The scathing report urges immediate action to craft an effective national plan for identifying and managing the potential risks of nanotechnology, warning that failure to do so could undermine the future of the rapidly emerging field.

Nanotechnology is the science of creating or modifying materials at the atomic and molecular level to develop new or enhanced materials and products.

Hundreds of consumer products that contain nanomaterials are already on the market, including cosmetics, sunscreen, clothing and toothpaste. But the future of nanotechnology looks far beyond such products, as scientists contend it will allow them to revolutionize health care, energy and manufacturing.

The tiny size of engineered nanomaterials - thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair - could allow such advancements, but scientists are still grappling with the risks.

Some of what is understood has experts very concerned.

Scientists have discovered that nanoparticles can bypass the blood brain barrier and found evidence that nanomaterials can affect biological systems at cellular and subcellular levels.

Earlier this year researchers reported that carbon nanotubes - something industry is keen to use for super strong materials and advanced electronics - may pose similar health risks to those posed by asbestos.

Ensuring such materials are not used before the risks have been researched and assessed is supposed to be a key part of the U.S. government's National Nanotechnology Initiative.

But the panel's review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative found little evidence that such it has developed a coherent risk research strategy.

The current plan "does not present an over-arching research strategy needed to gain public acceptance and realize the promise of nanotechnology," said committee chair David Eaton, an environmental and occupational health science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The committee said the NNI's plan lacks vision, does not contain a clear set of goals and does not outline funding priorities for research needed to understand the possible risks of nanotechnology to workers, the public or the environment.

Furthermore, the NNI plan "does nor provide a clear vision as to where our understanding of the environmental, health and safety implications of nanotechnology should be in five or 10 years," according to the report.

The panel noted that a key problem is the loose structure of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

Established in 2001, the initiative is tasked with coordinating nanotechnology activities across some 26 federal agencies, half of which contribute to the program's $1.3 billion research and development budget.

But it lacks any budgeting authority and can do little more than recommend research activities for agencies to pursue.

There is no accountability … no single organization or person that will be held accountable for whether the government's overall strategy delivers results," the committee concluded.

Research needs listed in the NNI plan are valuable, the committee said, but are incomplete and missing element vital to helping scientists understand the health, safety and environmental impacts of nanomaterials.

The panel added that NNI has overestimated how much federal funding is targeted toward nanotech risk research, including studies unrelated to those concerns in its assessment.

"Because of the flaws in the gap analysis, it is difficult to understand the priorities of selected research needs and the logic for the priorities," the committee said in its report.

The report also criticizes NNI's outreach to industry and other stakeholders, raising concerns it has failed to listen to their views or consider private efforts to address risk research needs.

A revamped plan must "focus on promoting research that can assist all stakeholders, including federal agencies, in planning, controlling, and optimizing the use of engineered nanomaterials, while minimizing the environmental, health and safety effects of concern to society," the committee concluded.

Environmentalists, industry groups and other nanotech experts praised the report, noting that it echoed many concerns they have risen for years about the Bush administration's nanotech plan.

"The administration's delay has hurt investor and consumer confidence," said David Rejeski, head of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

By failing to craft a responsible and coherent risk research plan, the administration has "gambled with public health and safety," Rejeski warned. "It has jeopardized the $14 billion investment governments and private industry have made in this technology and its great promise for significant advancements in health care, energy and manufacturing."

The council's report can "provide a roadmap for the next administration to make up for this lost time," he said. "It's time to get the job done and to get it done right."

A coalition consisting of the American Chemistry Council, DuPont, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund and a handful of chemical companies, echoed much of that sentiment.

For the past three years the coalition says it has been "urging the federal government to increase its focus on the potential health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology."

The coalition's statement noted that Congress last year called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to work directly with the National Research Council to develop a new nanotech risk research strategy and to implement that plan quickly.

"Unfortunately, the action called for by Congress has yet to take place," the coalition said. "We urge the federal agencies comprising the NNI to act immediately to implement what Congress and a broad spectrum of stakeholders have requested.

-- By J.R. Pegg. ENS Washington Bureau Chief

{Photo: Nanotube structure courtesy Zettl Research Group, Condensed Matter Physics, Department of Physics University of California at Berkeley}

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