USEPA unveils nanomaterials research strategy

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a new research strategy on 29 September 2009 seeking better understanding of how manufactured nanomaterials may harm human health and the environment.

Nanomaterials are materials that are between approximately one and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is approximately 1/100,000 the width of a human hair. These materials are currently used in hundreds of consumer products, including sunscreen, cosmetics and sports equipment. They are also being developed for use with desalination and water treatment membranes.

The strategy outlines what research the EPA will support over the next several years to generate information about the safe use of nanotechnology and products that contain nanoscale materials. The strategy also includes research into ways nanotechnology can be used to clean up toxic chemicals in the environment.

Two examples of nanotechnology use with water treatment membranes are: nanostructured filters, where either carbon nanotubes or nanocapillary arrays provide the basis for nanofiltration; and nanoreactive membranes, where functionalized nanoparticles aid the filtration process. As previously reported by D&WR, researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) recently claimed to have discovered a way to speed the desalination of seawater by up to five times using nanotubes made from boron and nitrogen atoms.

European research has highlighted the similarity of some nanotubes to asbestos and suggested that they could be carcinogenic.

The EPA’s role among federal agencies is to determine the potential hazards of nanotechnology and develop approaches to reduce or minimize any risks identified. As part of the strategy, researchers are investigating widely used nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes and titanium dioxide.

The research is being conducted in the EPA’s own laboratories and by grant recipients as part of a collaborative effort with other federal organizations and the international community. It is using a multidisciplinary approach that examines all aspects of nanomaterials in the environment, from their manufacture and use to their disposal or recycling.

The EPA’s strategy focuses on four areas that take advantage of its scientific expertise as well as filling gaps not addressed by other organizations. The four research themes are:

  • Identifying sources, fate, transport, and exposure.
  • Understanding human health and ecological effects to inform risk assessments and test methods.
  • Developing risk assessment approaches.
  • Preventing and mitigating risks.
  • The EPA’s Nanomaterial Research Program is designed to provide information to support nanomaterial safety decisions. Eight key science questions are described in the strategy, which are intended to help decision-makers answer the following questions:

  • What nanomaterials, in what forms, are most likely to result in environmental exposure?
  • What particular nanomaterial properties may raise toxicity concerns?
  • Are nanomaterials with these properties likely to be present in environmental media or biological systems at concentrations of concern, and what does this mean for risk?
  • If we think that the answer to the previous question is “yes,” can we change properties or mitigate exposure?
  • Providing information to answer these questions, says the EPA, will serve the public by enabling decisions that minimize potential averse environmental impacts, and thereby maximize the net societal benefit from the development and use of manufactured nanomaterials.