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January 25, 2012

NRC Publishes A Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials

Lynn L. Bergeson

On January 25, 2012, the National Research Council (NRC) posted the pre-publication version of its report entitled A Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asked NRC to perform an independent study to develop and monitor the implementation of an integrated research strategy to address the environmental, health, and safety (EHS) aspects of engineered nanomaterials (ENM). NRC convened the Committee to Develop a Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials, which concluded that there is 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.

To help guide research, the Committee noted the following four research categories, which it states should be addressed within five years:

  • Identify and quantify the nanomaterials being released and the populations and environments being exposed;
  • Understand processes that affect both potential hazards and exposure;
  • Examine nanomaterial interactions in complex systems ranging from subcellular to ecosystems; and
  • Support an adaptive research and knowledge infrastructure for accelerating progress and providing rapid feedback to advance research.

The Committee acknowledged a gap between funding and the level of activity required to support its strategy. The Committee concluded that any reduction in the current funding level of approximately $120 million per year over the next five years for health and environmental risk research by federal agencies would be a setback to nanomaterials risk research. Moreover, according to the Committee, additional “modest resources” from public, private, and international initiatives are needed in critical areas — informatics, nanomaterial characterization, benchmarking nanomaterials, characterization of sources, and development of networks for supporting collaborative research — to derive maximum strategic value from the research investments.

The Committee states that implementation of the strategy should also include the integration of domestic and international participants involved in nanotechnology-related research, including the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), federal agencies, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and the academic community. The Committee noted that the current structure of the NNI, which has no top-down budgetary or management authority to direct nanotechnology-related EHS research, hinders its accountability for effective implementation. In addition, according to the Committee, there is concern that dual and potentially conflicting roles of the NNI, such as developing and promoting nanotechnology while identifying and mitigating risks that arise from its use, impede application and evaluation of health and environmental risk research. The Committee concluded that, to carry out the research strategy effectively, a clear separation of management and budgetary authority and accountability between promoting nanotechnology and assessing potential environmental and safety risks is essential.