There are more than 700 products on the market today that are touched, worn and used -- ranging from cosmetics to electronics -- that involve nanomaterials. In the next decade a number of products, including food and medical therapies, will also be derived from nanomaterials.
There's not enough funding, leadership and research being conducted to study the health and environmental risks that might come with products made from nanomaterials, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Research Council (NRC).
Nanomaterials are materials made at the nanoscale, or at 100 nanometers or smaller. Nanotechnology is the science of making matter at the atomic or molecular scale.
The NRC said a plan developed by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) does not show a clear understanding of risks associated with the development and use of nanomaterials and products, nor does the NNI's plan include goals to ensure that nanotechnologies are developed and used as safely as possible, according to the report.
"The current plan catalogs nano-risk research across several federal agencies, but it does not present an overarching research strategy needed to gain public acceptance and realize the promise of nanotechnology," said David Eaton, chairman of the NRC committee and professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Nano-Based Consumer Tech
For electronics, nanotechnology is used to increase the capabilities of consumer-technology products, while decreasing weight, power and consumption.
Display technologies for laptops, cell phones, digital cameras and other devices are made of nano-structured polymer films known as "organic light emitting diodes."
Computer hard drives contain giant magnetoresistance heads with nano-thin layers of magnetic materials that enable a huge increase in storage Relevant Products/Services capacity. And researchers are developing memory chips using nanotechnology.
Motorola is working on nano-emissive displays; Intel is working on integrated circuits with nano-sized features; and California Molecular Electronics is working on molecule-sized chips.
Researching the Risks
With the number of products being made at the nanoscale, it means more workers and consumers will be exposed to them -- and there are many uncertainties about the health and environmental effects of those products, including potential toxic properties.
In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are 20,000 researchers worldwide working in nanotechnology today.
More research needs to be done on how nanomaterials are absorbed and metabolized by the body, according to the NRC's report. And additional research needs to be conducted on how toxic nanomaterials are at different levels of exposure.
Nanoscale colloidal particles are involved in the transport of materials, toxic organic compounds, viruses and radionuclides in the environment, according to the EPA, and some nanomaterials have been found to cause toxic responses to test organisms.
While more research is needed, the NRC said there also needs to be input from the industries and companies using nanotechnology, environmental and consumer advocacy groups, and other stakeholders.
Although government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration, oversee some of the research in nanotechnology, there is no one group or czar that is held responsible. The NRC is hoping to change that.