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Report Criticizes Government's Research Plan for Nanotech Risk

A new report from the National Research Council finds serious weaknesses in the government's plan for research on the potential health and environmental risks posed by nanomaterials, which are increasingly being used in consumer goods and industry. An effective national plan for identifying and managing potential risks is essential to the successful development and public acceptance of nanotechnology-enabled products, emphasized the committee that wrote the report.

The committee did not evaluate whether current uses of nanomaterials represent unreasonable risks to the public. Rather, the report focused on what would constitute an effective national research strategy for ensuring that current and future uses of nanomaterials are without significant impacts on human health or the environment.

"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, School of Public Health, and associate vice provost for research at the University of Washington, Seattle.

The research plan, developed by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, does not provide a clear picture of the current understanding of these risks or where it should be in 10 years, according to the new report. Nor does the NNI plan include research goals to help ensure that nanotechnologies are developed and used as safely as possible. And though the research needs listed in the plan are valuable, they are incomplete, in some cases missing elements crucial for progress in understanding nanomaterials' health and safety impacts, the committee stated. 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.

Nanoscale engineering manipulates materials at the molecular and atomic level to create structures with unique and useful properties -- materials that are both very strong and very light, for example. More than 600 products involving nanomaterials are already on the market, the majority of them health and fitness products, such as skin care and cosmetics. And over the next decade, nanomaterials will be used increasingly in products ranging from medical therapies to food additives to electronics. 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 committee stated.

The National Nanotechnology Initiative, which coordinates federal agency investments in nanoscale R&D, developed a research plan to investigate these risks, and the office that oversees NNI asked the National Research Council to review the plan.

More information on the report, "Review of Federal Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health, and Safety Research," can be found at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12559.

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