No one really knows the extent to which products made from nanomaterials, which now include everything from fumeless paints to golf balls to medicines, pose health and environmental threats. But some have charged that government and industry have been guilty of dilly-dallying in their efforts to find out.
An article called "Safe Handling of Nanotechnology," to be published Thursday in the journal Nature, seeks to apply pressure to those who are may be dragging their feet in conducting studies--or forking over research funding--that could help assess the not-entirely-theoretical hazards associated with the tiny particles.
(Nanotechnology, for the record, is the science of working with materials at the nanoscale. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and a human hair measures about 80,000 nanometers wide.)
"Without strategic and targeted risk research, people producing and using nanomaterials could develop unanticipated illness arising from their exposure; public confidence in nanotechnologies could be reduced through real or perceived dangers; and fears of litigation may make nanotechnologies less attractive to investors and the insurance industry," wrote the group of 14 international scientists who authored the report. Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor to the the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, led the efforts.
The researchers lay out five "grand challenges" for the future:
*Devising instruments within the next 3 to 10 years that can measure and detect exposure to engineered nanomaterials in air and water.
*Developing and validating tests within the next 5 to 15 years that can determine how toxic engineered nanomaterials are.
*Creating models within the next 10 years that can predict the potential impact of engineered nanomaterials on the environment and human health.
*Conjuring up, within the next 5 years, "robust systems" for evaluating the health and environmental impact of engineered nanomaterials over their entire life cycle.
*And, most urgently, coming up with collaborative, risk-focused research programs that benefit consumers, industry and government during the next year.
The blueprint quickly won over some members of Congress, who issued press releases on Wednesday applauding the recommendations and urging their adoption.
"The government has an obligation to help fund and conduct that research," U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert of New York and Ranking Democrat Bart Gordon of Tennessee said in a joint statement. "We need to move now when the issues are most pressing and the politics are most conducive to addressing them."