Expert Report

Research Progress on Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials (2013)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

Nanomaterials-—materials just one billionth of a meter in size—have novel chemical and physical properties that make them useful for an array of products that range from cosmetics to medical therapies to electronics. The unique characteristics and behaviors of nanomaterials and uncertainties regarding how they interact with biologic systems have motivated research on the potential risks they pose to human health and the environment. Despite an increase in research funding and in peer-reviewed publications over the past decade, environmental, health, and safety (EHS) research efforts are not keeping pace with the increasing and evolving applications of nanotechnology, and uncertainty persists about the potential effects of these materials on the health of consumers, workers, and on ecosystems.

To address those uncertainties, the Environmental Protection Agency asked the National Research Council to perform an independent study to develop and monitor the implementation of an integrated research strategy to address the EHS aspects of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs). In response to that request, the National Research Council released a report in January 2012, A Research Strategy for the Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials. The report identified four high-priority research areas: quantifying and characterizing the origins of nanomaterial releases; understanding processes that affect exposure and hazard; nanomaterial interactions in complex systems ranging from subcellular to ecosystems; and an adaptive research and knowledge infrastructure for accelerating progress and providing rapid feedback to advance research. It also identified mechanisms for implementation of the research that included enhancing interagency coordination, providing for stakeholder engagement in the research strategy, conducting and communicating the results of research funded through public-private partnerships, and managing potential conflict of interest.

This second report assesses recent research and implementation progress in the United States and the European Union on the basis of indicators identified in its first report. Given that the time interval between the two reports was too short for substantial new research programs to be put in place, let alone produce results, the committee instead examined the trajectory of research and progress in developing the mechanisms needed to ensure effective implementation.

Key Messages

  • Each indicator was classified by the committee as green for new activities or expected progress, yellow for moderate or mixed progress, or red for minimal activity and few anticipated changes. The committee found that the indicators for research and implementation progress ranged from yellow to red. However, one indicator, “developing methods for detecting, characterizing, tracking, and monitoring nanomaterials and their transformations in simple, well-characterized media” was classified as green.
  • Empowered leadership is needed; if all agencies are responsible, to some degree, for nanotechnology EHS research, no single agency can be held clearly accountable for its management and progress. The gap in empowered nanotechnology EHS research leadership at the federal level has made coordination and communication challenging and left the enterprise open to perceptions of conflicts between technology development and risk-related research. Research progress could be accelerated if there was one lead agency for directing EHS research throughout the federal government. Alternatively, a new entity could serve that function.
  • The availability of such a knowledge commons would also facilitate oversight of the nanomaterial research program itself and provide greater accountability for research progress. It could provide a context for addressing the recognized need for improved taxonomies of ENM structures, experiments, characteristics, models, effects, and uses.
  • This lead agency should ensure that all stakeholders have access to the “knowledge commons”— a collaborative environment for the development of methods, models, and materials, and for the capture and dissemination of data. This knowledge commons would serve as a resource for information relevant to nanotechnology EHS research at multiple levels of detail and thus could improve public understanding, inform policy-makers, offer data for future researchers, and shape the focus of future research.
  • To further advance EHS nanotechnology research, the committee concludes that more engaged and broadly reaching governance is needed. Because the applications of nanotechnology permeate every sector of our society and economy, the research spans the missions and jurisdictions of many diverse government agencies and intersects with activities and interests of many stakeholders. An integrated and well-coordinated program on both national and global scales would help to ensure that research findings provide the evidence needed to inform EHS decisions so that risks can be effectively managed and, ideally, prevented.