Public Release: 

Strategic research plan needed to help avoid potential risks of nanomaterials

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

WASHINGTON -- Despite extensive investment in nanotechnology and increasing commercialization over the last decade, insufficient understanding remains about the environmental, health, and safety aspects of nanomaterials. Without a coordinated research plan to help guide efforts to manage and avoid potential risks, the future of safe and sustainable nanotechnology is uncertain, says a new report from the National Research Council. The report presents a strategic approach for developing research and a scientific infrastructure needed to address potential health and environmental risks of nanomaterials. Its effective implementation would require sufficient management and budgetary authority to direct research across federal agencies.

Nanoscale engineering manipulates materials at the molecular level to create structures with unique and useful properties -- materials that are both very strong and very light, for example. Many of the products containing nanomaterials on the market now are for skin care and cosmetics, but nanomaterials are also increasingly being used in products ranging from medical therapies to food additives to electronics. In 2009, developers generated $1 billion from the sale of nanomaterials, and the market for products that rely on these materials is expected to grow to $3 trillion by 2015.

The committee that wrote the report found that over the last seven years there has been considerable effort internationally to identify research needs for the development and safe use of nanotechnology, including those of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), which coordinates U.S. federal investments in nanoscale research and development. However, there has not been sufficient linkage between research and research findings and the creation of strategies to prevent and manage any risks. For instance, little progress has been made on the effects of ingested nanomaterials on human health and other potential health and environmental effects of complex nanomaterials that are expected to enter the market over the next decade. Therefore, there is the need for a research strategy that is independent of any one stakeholder group, has human and environmental health as its primary focus, builds on past efforts, and is flexible in anticipating and adjusting to emerging challenges, the committee said.

Because the number of products containing nanoscale materials is expected to explode, and future exposure scenarios may not resemble those of today, selecting target materials to study on the basis of existing market size -- as is the practice now -- is problematic. To help guide research, the committee noted the following four research categories, which should be addressed within five years:

  • identify and quantify the nanomaterials being released and the populations and environments being exposed;
  • understand processes that affect both potential hazards and exposure;
  • examine nanomaterial interactions in complex systems ranging from subcellular to ecosystems; and
  • support an adaptive research and knowledge infrastructure for accelerating progress and providing rapid feedback to advance research.

While surveying the existing resources for research, the committee acknowledged a gap between funding and the level of activity required to support the committee's strategy. The committee concluded that any reduction in the current funding level of approximately $120 million per year over the next five years for health and environmental risk research by federal agencies would be a setback to nanomaterials risk research. Moreover, additional modest resources from public, private, and international initiatives are needed in critical areas -- informatics, nanomaterial characterization, benchmarking nanomaterials, characterization of sources, and development of networks for supporting collaborative research -- to derive maximum strategic value from the research investments.

Implementation of the strategy should also include the integration of domestic and international participants involved in nanotechnology-related research, including the NNI, federal agencies, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and the academic community. The committee said that the current structure of the NNI -- which has only coordinating functions across federal agencies and no top-down budgetary or management authority to direct nanotechnology-related environmental, health, and safety research -- hinders its accountability for effective implementation. In addition, there is concern that dual and potentially conflicting roles of the NNI, such as developing and promoting nanotechnology while identifying and mitigating risks that arise from its use, impede application and evaluation of health and environmental risk research. To carry out the research strategy effectively, a clear separation of management and budgetary authority and accountability between promoting nanotechnology and assessing potential environmental and safety risks is essential.


The study was sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are independent, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under an 1863 congressional charter. Panel members, who serve pro bono as volunteers, are chosen by the Academies for each study based on their expertise and experience and must satisfy the Academies' conflict-of-interest standards. The resulting consensus reports undergo external peer review before completion. For more information, visit A committee roster follows.

Jennifer Walsh, Media Relations Officer
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Pre-publication copies of A Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology
Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology

Committee to Develop a Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials

Jonathan M. Samet (chair)
Professor and Flora L. Thornton Chair
Department of Preventive Medicine
Keck School of Medicine, and
Institute for Global Health
University of Southern California
Los Angeles

Tina Bahadori
Managing Director
Long-Range Research Initiative
American Chemistry Council
Washington, D.C.

Jurron Bradley
Clean Energy Market Manager
BASF Corp.
Florham Park, N.J.

Seth Coe-Sullivan
Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer
QD Vision Inc.
Watertown, Mass.

Vicki L. Colvin
Vice Provost for Research, and
Professor of Chemistry and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
Rice University

Edward D. Crandall
Kenneth T. Norris Chair in Medicine;
Hastings Professor of Medicine; and
Department of Medicine
Keck School of Medicine
University of Southern California
Los Angeles

Richard A. Denison
Senior Scientist
Environmental Defense Fund
Washington, D.C.

William H. Farland
Senior Vice President for Research, and
Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences
Colorado State University
Fort Collins

Martin Fritts
Senior Prinicipal Scientist
SAIC-Frederick Inc.
Frederick, Md.

Philip K. Hopke
Bayard D. Clarkson Distinguished Professor
Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and
Center for Air Resources Engineering and Science
Clarkson University
Potsdam, N.Y.

James E. Hutchison
Lokey-Harrington Professor of Chemistry
University of Oregon

Rebecca D. Klaper
Associate Professor
School of Freshwater Sciences
University of Wisconsin

Gregory V. Lowry
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Carnegie Mellon University

Andrew D. Maynard
Risk Science Center
School of Public Health
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Gunter Oberdorster
Professor of Toxicology
Department of Environmental Medicine
School of Medicine and Dentistry
University of Rochester
Rochester, N.Y.

Kathleen M. Rest
Executive Director
Union of Concerned Scientists
Cambridge, Mass.

Mark J. Utell
Professor of Medicine and Environmental Medicine, and
Occupational and Environmental Medicine
School of Medicine and Dentistry
University of Rochester
Rochester, N.Y.

David B. Warheit
Research Fellow
Haskell Laboratory
E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co.
Newark, Del.

Mark R. Wiesner
James L. Meriam Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Pratt School of Engineering
Nicholas School of Environment and Earth Sciences
Duke University
Durham, N.C.


Eileen Abt
Study Director

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