Nanoparticle safety raises questions

U.S. initiative focuses on health as well as economic impacts of nanotechnology.

By Seán Ottewell, editor at large

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The U.S. government is revising its strategy on nanotechnology. In early January Washington launched an updated National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) strategic plan. This replaces a plan introduced just three years ago, reflecting the speed of progress in the field as well as concerns about the environmental, health and safety (EHS) implications of tiny particles.

The plan sets out the vision, goals and priorities needed to ensure that the U.S. gains growing economic benefits and a better quality of life from nanotechnology and remains a global leader in its R&D. The new strategy is designed to emphasize and clarify the significance that nanotechnology advances will have for the U.S. “Exploiting the full value that nanotechnology offers depends on sustained R&D. Barriers to innovation and technology transfer need to be lowered. Researchers, educators and technicians with new skills are required. Furthermore, nanotechnology must be developed responsibly,” explained Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, which supported the interagency effort in developing the plan.

To realize the NNI vision for a field which they say already is worth $12 billion, the participating agencies are collectively working toward four goals:

  • advancing a world-class nanotechnology R&D program;
  • fostering the transfer of new technologies into products for commercial and public benefit;
  • developing and sustaining educational resources, a skilled workforce and the infrastructure and tools to advance nanotechnology; and
  • supporting responsible development of nanotechnology.

The fourth goal is especially topical for the chemical industry because it involves a program of research, education and communication focused on EHS issues as well as the broader societal dimensions of nanotechnology development.

One of the critical research needs identified as part of this goal is developing techniques that predict toxicity before manufacturing. “The rapidly increasing numbers of nanomaterials in development and manufacture, as well as the exquisite sensitivity of a material to its biological microenvironment, makes it difficult to predict biocompatibility or toxicity in humans and the environment,” notes the strategy document.

The NNI wants to move away from the conventional, tiered system of toxicity assays and to develop predictive models for nanomaterials. This will allow physical and chemical parameters of materials to be adjusted early in product R&D — shortening time for toxicity testing from several weeks to hours, the plan says. “It will also provide a labor and cost benefit to the manufacturer, new tools for risk assessment by regulatory agencies, and protection of humans and the environment from harmful exposures.”

A number of industrial-supported initiatives already are looking at the safety of nanoparticles (www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2006/073.html) as is a voluntary effort with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2007/148.html). In addition, the National Science Foundation and the EPA are soliciting proposals to create a National Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology that would conduct fundamental research and education.

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