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Feds urge research on nano risks

ARLINGTON, Va.--That nano-engineered golf ball might help shave strokes off your game, but is it hazardous to your health--or to the green upon which it lands, for that matter?

When it comes to the burgeoning field of engineered nanoscale materials--that is, those that have been purposefully manufactured with at least one dimensions measuring less than 100 nanometers--no one's quite sure how concerned to be about potential environmental and health effects.

But it's high time for in-depth research on that subject, panelists suggested at a public meeting here on Thursday.

In what appears to be the first government-sponsored public forum focused exclusively on managing environmental, health and safety risks of nanomaterials, representatives from a federal interagency panel devoted to the subject outlined scores of research needs.

Among them: developing ways to detect nanomaterials in living beings, the environment, and the workplace; determining how they interact with other substances around them; monitoring air, water, soil and sediments for effects from nanomaterials; quantifying how much nanomaterial exposure the general public derives from consumer products and industrial processes; and understanding how nanomaterials are absorbed by the human body.

The ultimate goal? To "ensure that when we introduce a new nanomaterial into the marketplace...that we have a good fix on what are the risks of that material," said Norris Alderson, chairman of the federal working group on nanotechnology environmental and health implications and an official at the Food and Drug Administration.

More details on the group's recommendations are available in a report (PDF) released by the panel last September. The panel has invited public comments on the document until January 31.

The push for attention to potential risks posed by the fast-growing nano industry seems to have been gathering more steam in recent months. A group of international scientists last November a list of research challenges to be met within the next decade or so--but that may not happen, they warned, unless Congress ponies up more research dollars.