Pesticide DDT, industrial lubricants PCBs and now plastic BPA (bisphenol A) are all widely used industrial chemical compounds that have been discovered to cause ills such as cancer and/or environmental damage. Worried that the latest chemical craze—nanoparticles (molecules and even atoms engineered at the scale of one billionth of a meter or smaller)—may follow suit, a panel of scientists is urging federal government agencies to assess the potential risks posed by such engineered chemicals and particles before they are used in any more substances.
The National Research Council, one of The National Academies  in Washington, D.C., (scientific advisory bodies for the federal government) charges that the 18 government bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tasked with assessing chemical safety, have failed to prove that the diminutive particles are not dangerous. The group also charged in a new report that the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), the government body created to oversee such efforts, lacks a coherent plan for ensuring that current and future uses of nanotechnology do not pose a risk to human health or the environment.

Nanotechnology risk research "needs to be proactive—identifying possible risks and ways to mitigate risks before the technology has a widespread commercial presence," the report says. Instead the NNI "does not have the essential elements of a research strategy—it does not present a vision, contain a clear set of goals [or] have a plan of action."

More than 800 widely available products, including cosmetics, sporting goods and video displays, contain some form of nanotechnology, whether engineered particles or compounds, according to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (a Washington, D.C. think tank created by Congress in 1968). That number is set to grow as nanotech comes to items such as food additives and medical treatments.

"There's definitely an exposure, especially from nanosilver that's really common in consumer products as well as buckyballs and titanium dioxide in skin creams," says toxicologist Jennifer Sass, a senior health scientist at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "Nanomaterials, because of their size, are more bioavailable; and because of their surface area to mass, they are more chemically reactive. How that relates to toxicity needs to be looked at."

Gaps in the research—despite more than $14 billion in government and private investment—include a basic understanding of how nanomaterials are absorbed and metabolized by the human body as well as how toxic they may be to people already working with them. The NNI also does not have a plan for managing accidents or spills involving nanomaterials, according to the report.

Instead, the bulk of research is focused on developing medical therapies and roughly $15 million has been spent to assess human health and environmental risks, according to the Wilson Center. "Where you've got somebody in a workplace working with nanoengineered materials, the questions are: How much am I breathing in? What's the toxicity? How do I reduce the risk? Those are things we know we need answers to and don't have answers to," says physicist Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor to the Wilson Center's project on emerging nanotechnologies. "We know there's a potential for risk. We don't know if there is actual risk."

Both industry and environmental groups agreed that the government needs a better plan, including a joint letter from eight groups, such as  the American Chemistry Council industry organization and the Environmental Defense Fund, calling for a government research strategy.

"What this means is that we are learning from past lessons with some of the pesticides or [genetically modified] foods that we do need to show that these materials are going to be safe all the way through their life cycle[s]," says toxicologist Raymond David of the chemical company, BASF Corporation, which also signed the letter. "One of the risks is a risk that the consumer will not accept nanotechnology because of not having understood what happens when people are exposed and what are the downstream consequences of that exposure."

"If you're serious about making sure nanotechnology succeeds and to reap the economic benefits of its development, then you've got to invest in health and safety research," Maynard adds. "There's no shortcut there."