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Calls Rise for More Research on Toxicology of Nanomaterials

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Science  09 Dec 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5754, pp. 1609
DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5754.1609

Environmentalists and industry insiders alike urge major investments to maintain the emerging technology's spotless safety record

A rising chorus of government, industry, academic, and environmental leaders is calling for dramatic increases in funding to study possible adverse health and environmental effects of nanotechnology. These individuals—who don't often sing from the same songbook—argue that without this research, nanotechnology is setting itself up for the same kind of consumer backlash that has haunted genetically modified foods. In the past few weeks, the heads of DuPont and Environmental Defense and committees for the British Royal Society and the Science Council of Japan all have joined the choir.

Huge investments are at stake, they point out. The U.S. National Science Foundation projects that by 2015 nanotechnology will have a $1 trillion impact on the world economy and employ 2 million workers worldwide. Today, global spending on nanotechnology R&D is approximately $9 billion a year, about one-third of it in the United States. The U.S. federal government alone spends more than $1 billion a year on nanotechnology research. But only $39 million of that goes to studies targeted at understanding the effect of nanoparticles on human health and the environment. According to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which released an international database of nanotoxicology research projects last week, that still makes the United States the largest funder of nanotechnology environmental, health, and safety studies. The European Commission ranks second, with about $7.5 million.

Many experts now say that's not enough to test the hundreds of nanomaterials companies are pursuing. “Organizations as diverse as environmental NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], large chemical companies, nanotech start-ups, insurance companies, and investment firms all agree that the federal government should be immediately directing many more of the dollars it is currently investing in nanotechnology development toward identifying and assessing the potential risks of nanomaterials to human health and the environment,” Richard Denison, a senior scientist with Environmental Defense in New York City, said last month in testimony before the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science. Denison and other nongovernmental witnesses at the hearing agreed that the United States should spend at least $100 million a year on testing how exposure to a wide array of nanoparticles affects cells and organisms. At the same hearing, Mathew Nordan, vice president of research for Lux Research Inc., a nanotechnology research firm, upped the ante: He suggested that governments worldwide devote as much as $200 million a year to a national nanotechnology toxicology initiative aimed at testing each of the myriad nanoparticles for threats to human and environmental health. “It only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch,” Nordan said.

Safe or sorry?

Because a large percentage of their atoms lie on the surface, nanomaterials could be highly reactive—and potentially harmful.

CREDIT: NASA/AMES RESEARCH CENTER

Earlier this summer, DuPont CEO Chad Holliday and Environmental Defense's president Fred Krupp jointly penned an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal arguing that nanotoxicity research should be boosted to 10% of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative budget, up from the current level of about 4%. And a report published last week of a recent workshop organized by the United Kingdom's Royal Society and the Science Council of Japan said that “significant funding is urgently needed” for environmental, health, and safety studies of nanotechnology. On 30 November, after the U.K. government outlined a program to study the risks of nanotechnology, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering called for earmarked funds to keep the initiative from turning into an ad hoc patchwork of research projects.

But with funding tight, says David Rajeski, who heads the Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, what's needed most is not more money but coordination. “We need an international nanorisk research program built on shared knowledge and a clear set of priorities,” Rajeski says. As a possible f irst step, the Wilson Center recently compiled a database of more than 350 environmental health and safety studies in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and Taiwan. Among the biggest gaps, it found, are studies of workplace safety issues, such as unintended worker exposure to nanoparticles from accidents.

Clayton Teague, who directs the U.S. National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, says that efforts are well under way to coordinate nanotoxicology research. In the United States, he says, a working group from 24 federal agencies is finishing a report that will set priorities for nanotoxicology research. And on the international front, progress could come as early as this week at a meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Washington, D.C. OECD member countries are considering setting up a permanent working group on establishing international nanotoxicology research priorities. Such measures, Teague and others argue, will better help governments decide just how much funding is needed for nanotoxicity research and ensure that it is money well spent.

Still, many toxicologists argue that commercialization of nanomaterials is rapidly overtaking efforts to study their impact on human and environmental health. “There has been a tremendous amount of discussion about increasing and coordinating nanotoxicology funding,” says David Warheit, a nanotoxicology researcher at DuPont in Newark, Delaware. “But it's not happening as quickly as it should.”

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