An improved but still flawed government-wide plan for
nanotechnology risk research is the result of a broken system.
Federally-funded studies essential to managing possible risks from this
cutting-edge technology should be guided by a top-down strategy tied to
projected commercialization, expected human and environmental
exposures, and the regulatory decision-making process.
The National Nanotechnology Initiative’s (NNI)
Nanotechnology Environmental and Health Implications (NEHI) Working
Group recently released its strategy for nanotechnology environmental,
health and safety research. The strategy outlines an improved focus on
risk research for more than 20 federal agencies, including the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food & Drug
Administration (FDA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Earlier drafts of the strategy received widespread criticism from
industry officials, policy experts and congressional lawmakers for
being merely a list of general nanotechnology risk research categories.
The new strategy makes substantial strides towards identifying
prioritized research needs and assigning lead agencies to address these
Also just released, the new EPA Office of Research &
Development nanotechnology risk research plan appears to be in lock
step with the NEHI strategy. The EPA plan includes important studies on
risk assessment methods and life-cycle analysis to determine the
eventual fate of nanomaterials.
But major hurdles still stand in the way of the public,
industry and government obtaining a better understanding of the risks
posed by nanomaterials — and how to limit those risks.
Necessary resources for nanotechnology risk research are few and far
between in relevant oversight agencies such as the EPA, FDA and CPSC.
In addition, a limited investment by the NNI on occupational exposure
research can only increase dangers to those most susceptible
“The truth is that while the NEHI made significant
strides in this latest effort to present an improved nanotechnology
risk research strategy, only about five of the more than 240 identified
risk research projects focus on exposure assessment — which
directly affects workers. These are the people who are on the front
line and most likely to be exposed to potentially hazardous
nanomaterials,” says David Rejeski, the director of the
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN).
“The document also fails to employ a
‘top-down,’ strategic approach aimed at directing
funds and research at the places where there’s likely to be
the most risk,” according to Rejeski. “The NEHI
structure and plan are still broken. The plan is a collection of
individual agency research programs and not a strategic approach
appropriate to a technology projected to be incorporated into $2.6
trillion worth of products by 2014.”
An earlier analysis by PEN shows that in FY2005, the U.S.
government spent only about one percent of the overall $1.2 billion
federal nanotechnology research investment on highly relevant risk
research. For more information, see: www.nanotechproject.org/inventories/ehs.
The current strategy suggests that things have improved, but
according to Rejeski “only 40% of the listed research
projects are highly relevant to understanding potential nanotechnology
risks—the remaining 60% have only tangential relevance.
Transparency over what is being done and what needs to be done is
essential to strategic planning. The cited $68 million invested in
nanotechnology risk research in fiscal year 2006 is an inflated
estimate of work that directly addresses the issues, and that can only
further confound the formulation of an effective strategic