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National Research Council: Nanotech Safety Needs a Closer Look. Much Closer.

The National Research Council cannot tell us whether or not nanomaterials present a danger to the public, but the Council is sure that the federal government is not doing enough to identify risks nanotechnology may pose.

nanoparticlesIn a 97-page report released today, the NRC criticizes the current research plan on human health and environmental impacts of the National Nanotechnology Initiative–multiagency project to ramp up nanotech in the United states. From the National Academies press release:

The research plan, developed by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, does not provide a clear picture of the current understanding of these risks or where it should be in 10 years, says the new report. Nor does the NNI plan include research goals to help ensure that nanotechnologies are developed and used as safely as possible. And though the research needs listed in the plan are valuable, they are incomplete, in some cases missing elements crucial for progress in understanding nanomaterials’ health and safety impacts. A new national strategic plan is needed that goes beyond federal research to incorporate research from academia, industry, consumer and environmental groups, and other stakeholders, the committee concluded.

Of particular concern is how nanomaterials interact with the human body. As Rick Weiss reported earlier this year, the FDA knows that it needs to at least issue guidance on super-potent nanoscale drugs and other consumer products like cosmetics that contain nanoengineered particles, but has consistently failed to do so. There are at least 800 products on the market today containing nanomaterials. The new report chides the NNI plans for supporting drug R&D without sufficient complimentary research on risks.

In response to the report’s release, the House Science and Technology Committee issued a statement saying that Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) would reintroduce legislation that aimed to cover these environmental, health, and safety gaps. The bill passed the House last year but then stalled in the Senate.

Andrew Maynard, Chief Science Advisor at the Wilson Center Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, and who served on the NRC board that produced the report, framed the conclusions within a larger context on his blog, 2020 Science. He argues that without a national research strategy–and smart approaches to presenting the value of research to policymakers and the public–the investment in initiatives like the NNI won’t payoff. He writes:

And here’s the rub: if the new technology isn’t safe, isn’t perceived to be safe, or is plagued by uncertainty over how to use it safely, it will be stymied. And the economic and societal benefits will dwindle from a flood to a trickle.

He lays blame at the feet of the outgoing conservative administration the lack of an overarching innovation strategy and looks forward to new leadership under the president-elect.

UPDATE: The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies underscored the criticisms of the NRC report and reminds policymakers of their recommendations for improved funding mechanisms for the NNI that could the the research plan on track.

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