The Environmental Protection Agency has awarded $4 million in grants to study the health and environmental risks posed by manufactured nanomaterials -- the new and invisibly tiny materials that are revolutionizing many industries but whose effects on living things remain largely unknown.
The grants to a dozen universities mark the first significant federal effort to assess the biological and medical implications of nanotechnology, a burgeoning field of science that is expected to become a trillion-dollar industry within the next decade.
Among the products the field has begun to make are carbon "nanotube" electrical wires, each just a few ten-thousandths the diameter of a human hair; minuscule cages of atoms that can capture pollutants in water and soil; and ultra-fine-grained catalysts that reduce manufacturers' dependence upon caustic chemicals and other pollutants.
But the strange physical and chemical traits that make these materials so valuable also have potential downsides.
Measuring three-billionths of an inch or less, they are small enough to enter the lungs and perhaps even be absorbed through the skin. Experiments in animals have shown that once in the body, they can travel to the brain and other organs.
Several experiments are already underway that involve deliberately spreading nanomaterials in the environment despite some studies suggesting they can accumulate in the food chain and kill ecologically important microorganisms.
With hundreds of tons of nanomaterials already being made in U.S. labs and factories every year -- and the release this year of several cautionary reports from European scientific organizations and insurance companies -- activists have become more vocal in their demands for safety studies.
The 12 new EPA grants, to be announced today by Paul Gilman, the agency's assistant administrator for research and development, aim to address some of those concerns.
"This emerging field has the potential to transform environmental protection, but at the same time we must understand whether nanomaterials in the environment can have an adverse impact," Gilman said in prepared remarks released last night.
The grants are a small fraction of the $3.7 billion the federal government has committed to boosting the technology over the next four years. Still, said Barbara Karn of the EPA's Office of Research and Development, "it's a lot more than has ever been done" on nanotech safety. "It is infinitely more."