By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
The United States is the world leader in nanotechnology -- the newly blossoming science of making incredibly small materials and devices -- but is not paying enough attention to the environmental, health and safety risks posed by nanoscale products, says a report released yesterday by the independent National Research Council.
If federal officials, business leaders and others do not devise a plan to fill the gaps in their knowledge of nanotech safety, the report warns, the field's great promise could evaporate in a cloud of public mistrust.
"There is some evidence that engineered nanoparticles can have adverse effects on the health of laboratory animals," the congressionally mandated report said, echoing concerns raised by others at a House hearing last week. Until the risks are better understood, "it is prudent to employ some precautionary measures to protect the health and safety of workers, the public, and the environment."
The 176-page report, "A Matter of Size," was prepared under the auspices of the National Academies, chartered to advise Congress on matters of science. It focuses on the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which coordinates and prioritizes federal research in nanotechnology -- the fledgling but potentially revolutionary science that deals with materials as small as a billionth of a meter.
At that size, even conventional substances behave in unconventional ways. Some materials that do not conduct electricity or are fragile, for example, are excellent conductors and are extremely strong when made small enough. But nanoparticles can also enter human cells and trigger chemical reactions in soil, interfering with biological and ecological processes.
The report concludes that the U.S. research effort is vibrant and almost certainly the strongest in the world, though a few other countries are close behind. Among the more important unmet needs, it says, is stronger collaboration with the departments of Education and Labor to boost the supply of scientists and technicians with the skills the sector needs.
The report's concerns about the lack of a federal focus on nanotech health and safety were foreshadowed at a House Science Committee hearing Thursday at which Republicans and Democrats alike took the Bush administration to task over the lack of a plan to learn more about nanotech's risks.
Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) accused the administration of "sauntering" toward solutions "at a time when a sense of urgency is required."
Ranking Democrat Bart Gordon (Tenn.) went further, calling the administration's latest summary of nanotech research needs, released at the hearing, "a very juvenile piece of work."
Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, funded in part by the Smithsonian Institution, said the government is spending about $11 million a year on nanotechnology's potential harms when industry and environmental groups have jointly called for at least $50 million to $100 million a year.
Equally important, Maynard said, is the need for a coordinated strategy to spend that money wisely.
About 300 consumer products already contain nanoscale ingredients, Maynard said, including several foods and many cosmetics, with little or no research to document their safety.
The industry is expected to be worth about $2 trillion by 2014.
Norris Alderson, associate commissioner for science at the Food and Drug Administration and chairman of the working group that created the administration's summary research plan presented to Congress last week, said the document -- which was supposed to be delivered six months ago -- was meant as "a first step."
Asked by Boehlert if he understood that much more is expected of him and his working group, Alderson responded: "I think your message is loud and clear."