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Report: U.S. lax on testing nanotech safety

Advisory council says not enough being done to study potential health hazards

December 11, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A U.S. advisory council reported this week that the government is lax in its efforts to study the potential health hazards associated with nanotechnology.

With nanotechnology increasingly being used in various consumer goods, like nanoradios, tennis rackets, iPod devices and computer chips, the National Research Council is calling for a national plan to identify and manage potential risks associated with nanotechnology-enabled products.

The council did not study whether current uses of nanomaterials represent a risk to the public.

"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 at the University of Washington, in a statement.

Nanotechnology is the control of matter -- generally creating structures or functional devices -- at the molecular or atomic level. The council reported that there already are more than 600 products on the market that use nanomaterials.

In May, some researchers and analysts called on the federal government to fund a study of the potential health risks of carbon nanotubes, which are the building blocks of nanotechnology. The request for funding came just as the University of Edinburgh released a study showing that some forms of nanotubes can cause cancer, much like asbestos does. The study shows that long, thin multiwalled carbon nanotubes, which look like asbestos fibers, actually behave like asbestos and can cause cancer of the lung lining.

"We have very little information about the types of nanotubes used in products," said Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, in a videotaped interview posted on the organization's Web site. "Nanotubes come in many, many different types, different shapes, different sizes and different chemical behaviors. We don't know if the products on the market contain harmful nanotubes or safe nanotubes, or even if the nanotubes can come out of these products."

As of this spring, the U.S. government was shelling out $1.5 billion a year to study nanotechnology, according to a staffer on the Committee on Science and Technology. Only 4% of that money, however, is earmarked for health and safety research.

The National Research Council noted in its report, which was released Wednesday, that the country's current research plan, which was developed by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, does not offer a clear picture of what scientists know today about nanotechnology risks. It also doesn't point to where our scientific understanding should be in another 10 years. The council's report also said the government plan should include research goals toward making sure that nanotechnologies are safe and are used as safely as possible.

"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 council noted in its report. "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."

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