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NANOTECH: Experts Call on Federal Government to Speed Up Safety Research
Environment and Energy Daily; November 18, 2005 Friday
The federal government must quickly identify gaps in research probing the environmental and health safety of nanomaterials to avoid the public perception problems that have dogged other recent technologies, such as genetically modified agriculture, according to nanotechnology experts who appeared yesterday before the House Science Committee. Emerging scientific consensus indicates that some nanomaterials — especially carbon nanotubes — can cause lung damage. Other studies suggest that buckyballs — soccer-ball shaped molecules of carbon — are both antibacterial and more soluble in water than previously thought, raising questions about their effects on aquatic ecosystems.
With some analysts predicting U.S. nanotech efforts could blossom into a $2.6 trillion industry by 2014, the U.S. EPA, other federal agencies and the private sector are placing new emphasis on resolving issues of risk. But those efforts are insufficient, witnesses from industry, academia and environmental groups told the House panel. While the president’s fiscal year 2006 budget request for the agency-spanning National Nanotechnology Initiative is $1.1 billion, just $38.5 million — or 4 percent — is designated for research into environmental and health implications. That number should be increased to as much as $100 million per year, witnesses said. The lack of such data is hampering commercialization, with many businesses holding back on their own research and development efforts until the safety picture clears, said Matthew Nordan, of nanotechnology-industry analysis firm Lux Research. Part of the problem is that of the 11 agencies involved in the NNI, none has emerged as a leader to take charge of federal research efforts, said David Rejeski, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. Rejeski and other witnesses, including a DuPont Co. executive and a representative of the advocacy group Environmental Defense, argued that Congress should mandate a study by the Government Accountability Office or the National Academy of Sciences to identify a lead agency for nanotechnology efforts. “Industry, the insurance and investment community, and environmentalists are all united” in calling for better direction and oversight of nanotechnology at the federal level, said Richard Denison of Environmental Defense. “We believe there’s an opportunity to get nanotechnology right the first time,” he said.