Public Release: 

Specter of possible harm threatens nanotech development, experts say

Scientists set Five Grand Challenges for nanotechnology risk research

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars/Science and Technology Innovation Program

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Society is in danger of squandering the powerful potential of nanotechnology due to a lack of clear information about its risks, conclude 14 top international scientists in a major paper published in the November 16th issue of the journal Nature. The paper, "Safe Handling of Nanotechnology," identifies Five Grand Challenges for research on nanotechnology risk that must be met if the technology is to reach its full promise.

The paper's lead author is Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Chief Science Advisor Andrew Maynard. The co-authors are among the world's foremost nanotechnology risk and applications researchers from universities, government, and industry in the United States and Europe.

"The spectre of possible harm--whether real or imagined--threatens to slow the development of nanotechnology unless sound, independent and authoritative information is developed on what the risks are, and how to avoid them," Maynard and his co-authors write.

"We are running out of time to 'get it right.' Last year, more than $32 billion in products containing nano-materials were sold globally. By 2014, Lux Research estimates that $2.6 trillion in manufactured goods will incorporate nanotechnology," asserts Maynard. "If the public loses confidence in the commitment--of governments, business, and the science community--to conduct sound and systematic research into possible risks, then the enormous potential of nanotechnology will be squandered. We cannot let that happen."

"Fears over the possible dangers of some nanotechnologies may be exaggerated, but they are not necessarily unfounded," say the authors. "Recent studies examining the toxicity of engineered nanomaterials in cell cultures and animals have shown that size, surface area, surface chemistry, solubility and possibly shape, all play a role in determining the potential for nanomaterials to cause harm."

The paper outlines Five Grand Challenges to "stimulate research that is imaginative, innovative, timely and above all relevant to the safety of nanotechnology." They include the development of:

    1. instruments to assess environmental exposure to nanomaterials,
    2. methods to evaluate the toxicity of nanomaterials,
    3. models for predicting the potential impact of new, engineered nanomaterials,
    4. ways of evaluating the impact of nanomaterials across their life cycle, and
    5. strategic programs to enable risk-focused research.

Within the Five Grand Challenges, the authors set specific targets to achieve within specific timeframes. These include developing a "universal aerosol sampler" for measuring exposure to airborne nanomaterials, assessing whether fiber-shaped nanoparticles present a unique health hazard, and establishing ways of engineering nanomaterials that are "safe-by-design."

"It is generally accepted that, in principle, some nanomaterials may have the potential to cause harm to people and the environment," according to the authors. "Yet research into understanding, managing, and preventing risk often has a low priority in the competitive worlds of intellectual property, research funding and technology development."

"Ultimately, this is not just a question about nanotechnology," says Maynard. "It is about whether governments, industry and scientists around the world are willing to make safe nanotechnology a priority. Are they willing devote the resources necessary to develop a comprehensive research strategy, and to work together with some urgency to implement and enable the technology to be safely applied?"

Maynard and his co-authors conclude that "if the global research community can take advantage [of the research opportunities before us] and rise to the challenges we have set, then we can surely look forward to the advent of safe nanotechnologies."


About Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture things usually between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter; a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide.

A recent poll by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies shows that while public awareness of nanotechnology is increasing, fully 69 percent of Americans have heard little or nothing about the technology. Poll results are online at:

List of Paper's Authors and Institutions*

Dr. Andrew D. Maynard
Chief Science Advisor, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Washington, DC, USA

Dr. Robert J. Aitken FiON
Director of Strategic Consulting
Nanotechnology Programme Director
Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM)
Edinburgh, UK

Prof. Dr. Tilman Butz
Nuclear Solid State Physics
University of Leipzig
Leipzig, GERMANY

Prof. Vicki Colvin
Executive Director, Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology
Rice University
Houston, TX, USA

Prof. Ken Donaldson
Professor of Respiratory Toxicology
MRC/University of Edinburgh Centre for Inflammation Research
ELEGI Colt Laboratory
Queen's Medical Research Institute
Edinburgh, UK

Prof. Gunter Oberdorster
University of Rochester
Environmental Medicine
Rochester, NY, USA

Prof. Martin A. Philbert
Professor of Toxicology - Senior Associate Dean for Research
University of Michigan School of Public Health
Ann Arbor, MI, USA

Prof. John Ryan
Director, Bionanotechnology Interdisciplinary Research Centre
University of Oxford
Oxford, UK

Prof. Anthony Seaton CBE FMedSci
Emeritus Professor, Aberdeen University
Hon Senior Consultant, Institute of Occupational Medicine
Edinburgh, UK

Prof. Vicki Stone
Napier University
Edinburgh, UK

Dr. Sally S. Tinkle
Office of the Deputy Director
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)
National Institutes of Health
Research Triangle Park, NC, USA

Dr. Lang Tran
Senior Scientist
Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM)
Edinburgh, UK

Dr. Nigel J. Walker
Environmental Toxicology Program
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)
National Institutes of Health
Research Triangle Park, NC, USA

Dr. David B. Warheit
Research Fellow
DuPont Haskell Laboratory for Health and Environmental Sciences
Newark, DE, USA

*Opinions and views expressed in the article are of those of the authors. Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is an initiative launched by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2005. It is dedicated to helping business, government and the public anticipate and manage possible health and environmental implications of nanotechnology. For more information about the project, log on to

The Pew Charitable Trusts is a national charitable organization serving the public interest by informing the public, advancing policy solutions and supporting civic life. Based in Philadelphia, with an office in Washington, D.C., the Trusts will invest $248 million in fiscal year 2007 to provide organizations with fact-based research and practical solutions for challenging issues.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is the living, national memorial to President Wilson established by Congress in 1968 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. The Center establishes and maintains a neutral forum for free, open, and informed dialogue. It is a nonpartisan institution, supported by public and private funds and engaged in the study of national and international affairs.

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