Foresight’s principal focus has been the development of advanced nanotechnology for atomically precise manufacturing, but the incremental development and application of current nanotechnology is also a major interest. Meeting the challenges of incremental nanotechnology development and application includes adequately addressing any potential environmental, health, and safety issues (see Foresight’s “Nanoparticle safetypolicy brief.). We therefore note with pleasure that an expert panel of the National Academy of Sciences has recommended that the potential health and environmental risks of nanomaterials should be studied further and that they will revisit the issue in 18 months, when it is to be hoped that the necessary research will be moving forward. From “With Prevalence of Nanomaterials Rising, Panel Urges Review of Risks” by Cornelia Dean:

… Nanoscale forms of substances like silver, carbon, zinc and aluminum have many useful properties. Nano zinc oxide sunscreen goes on smoothly, for example, and nano carbon is lighter and stronger than its everyday or “bulk” form. But researchers say these products and others can also be ingested, inhaled or possibly absorbed through the skin. And they can seep into the environment during manufacturing or disposal.

Nanomaterials are engineered on the scale of a billionth of a meter, perhaps one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair, or less. Not enough is known about the effects, if any, that nanomaterials have on human health and the environment, according to a report issued by the academy’s expert panel. The report says that “critical gaps” in understanding have been identified but “have not been addressed with needed research.”

And because the nanotechnology market is expanding — it represented $225 billion in product sales in 2009 and is expected to grow rapidly in the next decade — “today’s exposure scenarios may not resemble those of the future,” the report says.

The panel called for a four-part research effort focusing on identifying sources of nanomaterial releases, processes that affect exposure and hazards, nanomaterial interactions at subcellular to ecosystem-wide levels and ways to accelerate research progress. …

A free PDF of the report A Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials is available.
—James Lewis