Nanotechnology environmental, health, and safety (nanoEHS) activities have become a hallmark of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Well-coordinated nanoEHS research and development (R&D) is essential to ensuring a future in which responsible development of nanotechnology provides maximum benefit to society and the environment. These efforts are pivotal in contributing to American innovation and to advancing manufacturing and economic competitiveness. Progress in nanoEHS research is vital to establishing the regulatory certainty and public confidence needed for companies to bring their nanotechnology products to market and to ensuring that these products are safe and sustainable throughout their life cycles. Three reports released last month highlight Federal investments and activities in this area, progress and needs in understanding exposure from consumer products, and how businesses can protect their nanotechnology workforce. In addition, an upcoming workshop will explore the work of joint U.S.–European Union nanoEHS communities of research in developing a shared repertoire of protocols and methods.
The recently released NNI Supplement to the President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2017, which serves as the annual report for the NNI, highlights the programs and coordinated activities taking place across the many departments, independent agencies, and commissions participating today in the NNI—an initiative that continues to serve as a model for effective coordination of Federal science and technology R&D. As detailed in this report, nanoEHS activities continue to account for about 10 percent of the annual NNI budget, with cumulative Federal R&D investments in this area exceeding $1 billion over the past decade. This report includes descriptions of a wide variety of individual agency and coordinated activities supporting the responsible development of nanotechnology.
To understand and control the risks of using any new materials in consumer products, it is important to understand the potential for exposure and any associated hazards across product life cycles. Last month, the NNI released a report, Quantifying Exposure to Engineered Nanomaterials (QEEN) from Manufactured Products: Addressing Environmental, Health, and Safety Implications, summarizing a workshop on this topic sponsored by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The main goals of the workshop were to assess progress in developing tools and methods for quantifying exposure to engineered nanomaterials across the product life cycle, and to identify new research needed to advance exposure assessment for nanotechnology-enabled products. As noted in the report, significant progress has been made in the ability to quantify nanomaterial exposures, such that available methods can now detect nanoparticles well below known toxicity levels and beneath the threshold of economical and reasonable regulatory action. However, greater understanding of exposure risks in “real-world” scenarios is needed, along with techniques, based on alternative testing models and high-throughput methods for rapidly estimating exposures.
The technical experts who participated in CPSC’s workshop recommended that future work focus on the complex issue of determining biomarkers of exposure linked to disease, which will require substantive public–private collaboration, partnership, and knowledge sharing. Recognizing these needs, the President’s 2017 Budget request for CPSC includes funds for a new nanotechnology center led by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to develop test methods and to quantify and characterize the presence, release, and mechanisms of consumer exposure to nanomaterials in consumer products. This cost-effective, interagency collaboration will enable CPSC—through NIEHS—to collect the needed data to inform the safety of nanotechnology in consumer products and allow CPSC to benefit from NIEHS’s scientific network and experience.
Managing EHS risks across a product’s lifecycle includes protecting the workers who manufacture those products. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has issued a series of documents providing guidance to this emerging industry, including the recently released publication Building a Safety Program to Protect the Nanotechnology Workforce: A Guide for Small to Medium-Sized Enterprises. This guide provides business owners with the tools necessary to develop and implement a written health and safety program to protect their employees.
The responsible development of nanotechnology is a goal that the United States shares with many countries. The United States and the European Union are engaged in notable cooperation on this front. European and American scientists engaged in nanoEHS research convene annually for a joint workshop to identify areas of shared interest and mechanisms for collaboration to advance nanoEHS science. The 2016 joint workshop will be held on June 6–7, 2016 in Arlington, VA, and is free and open to the public. Registration opened on April 6, 2016, on a first-come, first-served basis.
The NNI is committed to the responsible development of nanotechnology, including sound, scientific assessment of nanotechnology’s benefits and risks, and R&D needed to understand the potential EHS impacts of engineered nanomaterials. We invite you to learn more about Federal activities and resources related to nanoEHS at: www.nano.gov/you/environmental-health-safety.
Treye Thomas leads the Chemical Hazards Program team in the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and serves as the Coordinator for Environmental, Health, and Safety Research under the National Nanotechnology Initiative. These comments are those of the CPSC staff, and they have not been reviewed or approved by, and may not necessarily reflect the views of, the Commission.
Lloyd Whitman is Assistant Director for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.