A road map for safer nanotech?

Information on the long-term health effects of nanomaterials remains scarce, so a group of researchers offers recommendations to fill the void.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read
Even as development of nanomaterials zooms ahead, information on the long-term consequences to human health remains scarce.

That's why a 14-member working group convened by the International Life Sciences Institute has recommended a general framework for researching and pinpointing potential hazards.

In a report published in the journal Particle and Fiber Toxicology and formally released at a Washington, D.C., conference Thursday, the group outlines the elements--as opposed to a detailed plan--that researchers should consider in screening nanomaterials for toxicity.

The term "nanomaterial" refers to a substance designed and produced from chemical components that measure 100 nanometers or less. (For comparison's sake, a human hair measures about 100,000 nanometers in width.) Researchers in recent years have been exploring ways to use nanomaterials to concoct fumeless paint, detect cancer and even cure smelly feet.

Group members said the report addresses a central question that has never been tackled in this realm: What is the best strategy for uncovering the potential threats to major organs by these particles?

"Right now there are very few data," David Warheit, a toxicologist at the Delaware-based DuPont Haskell Laboratory, said at the Thursday conference. "Over the next few years, I think we need to expand the database."

"Just because this report is being issued today doesn't mean we aren't looking at all of the issues--exposure and toxicity--in the products we hope to sell."
--David Warheit, DuPont Haskell Laboratory

No direct mention was made of translating the group's recommendations to law, though Jim Willis, a senior official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, said at the conference that "it may be appropriate to follow up with regulatory approaches." Willis was not involved with the working group, but his agency plans to release its own assessment of the environmental and health effects of nanomaterials as soon as next month and to hold a workshop where various stakeholders from around the globe can discuss the topic.

The working group's report separates its recommendations into three major categories. First, researchers must "characterize" nanomaterials by gathering extensive data on their physical and chemical properties, including mass, surface area, concentration of particles, surface charge, surface chemical makeup and crystal structure.

The remaining two sets of recommendations center on testing methods. The report recommends coupling in vitro tests, which are controlled trials conducted in an artificial environment, outside a living organism, with in vivo tests, which involve live bodies.

In vivo tests, considered more accurate than their in vitro counterparts, could then be broken into two tiers. The first tier would involve testing a material's effects when taken orally, inhaled, injected or exposed to skin. The second tier, reserved for situations in which a larger number of people would be exposed to the material in question, would take a deeper look at health concerns, including the potential for "translocation" of the nanoparticles from the lungs to other major organs.

The working group, which began its work in February and was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was chaired by Gunter Oberdorster, a toxicology professor at the University of Rochester, which received a $5.5 million grant last year to probe nanotech health effects. (Last year, the United States government reportedly spent more on nanotechnology research than did any other country.) Oberdorster was not present at the Thursday conference because of scheduling conflicts.

Warheit, whose company is a major player in the nanotechnology sphere, said: "Just because this report is being issued today doesn't mean we aren't looking at all of the issues--exposure and toxicity--in the products we hope to sell."