Environmental, Health, and Safety Issues

With the advent of new technologies, including nanotechnology, one should consider the potential unintended consequences to human health and the environment that might accompany development and use of the technology. This assessment of the benefits to society and the potential hazards is called risk assessment. The NNI is committed to sound, scientific assessment of nanotechnology benefit and risk, that is, an understanding the potential environmental, health, and safety (EHS) impacts of nanotechnology.

The Federal commitment to health and the environment has been part of a nanotechnology research framework since 2001. Work on an NNI Nanotechnology EHS Research Strategy began in earnest in 2006. The first strategy was published in 2008 and updated in 2011. This strategy provides guidance to the Federal agencies as they develop their agency-specific nanotechnology EHS research priorities, implementation plans, and timelines. The goal of this coordinated research effort is to provide the information necessary to regulatory agencies to perform risk assessments that protect public health and the environment and support the beneficial use of nanotechnology.

To make the Federally funded nanoEHS research most practical and timely, the framework underlying the 2011 nanoEHS research strategy integrates several important concepts—risk assessment and product life cycle stages—into the basic and applied research to understand the EHS impacts of nanomaterials. Risk assessment is a process through which new materials are evaluated for their ability to cause unanticipated harm to humans and the environment. This evaluation is based on scientific data that measures the magnitude of the harm an individual might experience based on the size of the exposure and the biological response to that exposure.

The risk assessment paradigm (on left) integrated with nanomaterial life cycle stages (across top). (Design credit: N.R. Fuller of Sayo-Art.)

Exposure to nanomaterials may occur unintentionally in the environment or through use of nanotechnology-enabled products. The figure above integrates the key risk assessment components—exposure assessment, hazard identification, and dose response (left-hand column)—with nanomaterial life cycle stages—from raw materials through commercialization and end of product life (across the top)—and the exposure-effects pathways. The concentration of nanomaterials in the environment will depend on factors such as the nature and amount of the nanomaterial released, its physical and chemical properties, and time. As depicted in blue and red in this continuum, nanomaterials released into the environment may undergo transformation by environmental conditions such as temperature and salinity, biological conditions such as habitat, and the presence of co-contaminants. In turn, the transformed nanomaterials may modify atmospheric, soil, or water chemistry. These transfomations may alter the form of the nanomaterials to which humans and ecosystems are exposed and which are transported through the environment. Biological or environmental systems may be exposed to these dispersed engineered nanomaterials and respond through systems and pathways designed to buffer exposures to substances that could perturb human health or adversely impact the environment.

Federal research dedicated to nanoEHS grew substantially from $35 million in FY 2005 to an estimated $121.1 million requested for FY 2014. Between FY 2005 and FY 2014 the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) will have invested $750 million in research with the primary function of understanding EHS issues.

The multi-agency National Nanotechnology Initiative also regularly assesses research progress and identifies priority gaps and emerging trends through dialogue with its stakeholders: academics, industry, public health advocates, and the general public. The NNI has held technical workshops on EHS-related issues since 2003 and continues to do so. Workshops have focused on methods for detecting nanomaterials in biological materials, the environment, and the workplace, and understanding the effects of engineered nanomaterials in various species. Three workshops in 2009 explored research on human and environmental exposure and on instrumentation, metrology, and analytical methods as they relate to nanoparticles in the environment and in human health. Another workshop in March 2010 explored risk management methods and ethical and societal dimensions of nanotechnology and integrated these findings, as well as those from the earlier workshops, into the 2011 nanoEHS research strategy.

To learn more about these workshops, visit the various workshops' websites:

Capstone: Risk Management Methods and Ethical, Legal and Societal Implications of Nanotechnology (Mar 2010)

Nanomaterials & Human Health and Instrumentation, Metrology, and Analytical Methods (Nov 2009)

Nanomaterials & the Environment and Instrumentation, Metrology, and Analytical Methods (Oct 2009)

Human and Environmental Exposure Assessment (Feb 2009)

Learn more about the NNI's targeted work in this area through the Nanotechnology Environmental, Health, and Safety Working Group.