Good things don’t necessarily come in small packages. Take the growing popularity of nanotechnology, for example. Although nanoscale forms of silver, carbon, zinc, and aluminum can be found in products ranging from clothing to cosmetics, their health and environmental risks remain uncertain, according to an expert panel of the National Academy of Sciences. Nanomaterials, which are less than ten-thousandth the width of a human hair, offer several advantage, including the ability to be both very strong and very light, or, in the case of certain sunblocks, to glide on smoothly without giving the Phantom of the Opera a run for his money. But they can also be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin, researchers warn, or leach into the environment during manufacturing, use, and disposal.
The market for nanoscale products is expected to grow to $3 trillion by 2015, but “critical gaps” in understanding haven’t been addressed with the necessary research, notes the report, which was sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The market for nanoscale products is expected to grow to $3 trillion by 2015.
“Little progress has been made on the effects of ingested nanomaterials on human health and other potential health and environmental effects of complex nanomaterials that are expected to enter the market over the next decade,” the committee says. “Therefore, there is the need for a research strategy that is independent of any one stakeholder group, has human and environmental health as its primary focus, builds on past efforts, and is flexible in anticipating and adjusting to emerging challenges.”
The committee also notes a gap between funding and the level of research required to surmount those challenges. Any reduction in the current federal funding level of $120 million per year over the next five years for health and health and environmental risk assessments would be a “setback to nanomaterials risk research,” it says.
But the government could also use all the help it can get, the committee adds. Additional resources from public, private, and international initiatives are critical if we’re to derive the “maximum strategic value” from these research investments.