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The UK continues to push nanotechnology risk research

(Nanowerk Spotlight) A quickly increasing number of commercial products and developments use nanomaterials. The list includes sunscreens and cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, paints and other coatings, diesel fuel additives, self-cleaning windows, materials science, energy production and storage and electronics. Advances in hazard and risk identification have been made but we still require significantly more knowledge and understanding of the underpinning science necessary for the characterization of nanomaterials and work on human health impacts remains a priority. Both of these aspects continue to present major challenges and they remain a focus for research activities around the world.
Ever since its October 2005 report 'Characterizing the potential risks posed by engineered nanoparticles' (pdf download, 816 KB) in which it described a set of 19 Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) research objectives, the UK government has been very active in research pertaining to the environmental, health and safety issues relating to engineered nanoparticles.
The UK government has now published its second research report, outlining progress on its research agenda to address the potential risk posed by the products of nanotechnology. The report places the UK research program in an international context. The Nanotechnology Research Coordination Group (NRCG) is collaborating with international partners, particularly through the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Standards Organization (ISO), to share data and experiences. In this way they hope to be able to maximize the effectiveness and speed with which potential risks may be identified and managed. The report also responds to the recommendations made by the Council for Science and Technology (CST) review (March 2007) on the UK research program and the activities of the NRCG.
The report continues to address the uncertainties associated with nanotechnologies as set out in the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering Report of 2004 'Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and uncertainties' which still serves to drive the agenda for the responsible development of nanotechnologies.
The original report from 2005 described a set of 19 Environmental, Health and Safety research objectives that the UK scientific community felt were key to determining all relevant nanotechnology related risk issues. To build research capacity in this area, a number of Government departments, agencies and Research Councils were identified as responsible for funding research under each of these 19 research objectives (RO). The ROs are:
RO1 Social and ethical implications of nanotechnologies
RO2 Measurement and characterization
RO3 Development of standard reference materials
RO4 Fire and explosion properties of nanoparticles
RO5 Sources of nanoparticles
RO6 Technologies for measurement of nanoparticles via air
RO7 Fate and behavior of nanoparticles in air
RO8 Exposure control devices
RO9 Technologies for measurement of nanoparticle exposure in water and soils
RO10 Environmental fate and behavior of nanoparticles in soils and water
RO11 Toxicokinetics of nanoparticles in the human body
RO12 Intra and intercellular transport, localization and toxicity of nanoparticles
RO13 Oxidative stress, inflammatory effects and genotoxicity of nanoparticles
RO14 Impacts of nanoparticles on the cardiovascular system and brain via the lung
RO15 Dermal uptake, penetration and toxicity of nanoparticles
RO16 Development of testing strategies and methods for human health hazard assessment of nanoparticles International
RO17 Uptake, toxicity and effects of nanoparticles on groundwater microorganisms, and soil micro-organisms, flora and fauna
RO18 Effects of nanoparticles in invertebrates, vertebrates (non human) and plants
RO19 Development of testing strategies and methods for environmental health hazard assessment of nanoparticles
Five task forces were set up to take forward the work of the NRCG. The new, 100-pages report ("Characterising the potential risks posed by engineered nanoparticles: a second UK Government research report") covers the activities of the five Task Forces and progress on their action plans set out in the 2006 report to meet the 19 objectives.
Task Force 1 (Metrology, Characterization, Standardization and Reference Materials)
A key output has been a report related to the metrology and characterization aspects which deals with defining a set of reference nanomaterials and related issues as a means to focus the way forward to establish a bank of reference materials for toxicology studies and other purposes. In addition, standardization work, particularly at the international level is proceeding very strongly with the UK taking a lead role.
Task Force 2 (Exposures: Sources, Pathways and Technologies)
A concerted body of work has begun or is proposed. However, the difficulties in distinguishing between engineered and naturally occurring nanoparticles complicates the assessment of exposure to humans and the environment. Nevertheless, the range of projects and proposals in this area, particularly in the occupational setting, will provide a sound starting point to address many of the uncertainties in our understanding of such exposure to engineered nanoparticles. Exposure in the workplace is an area of work where there has been considerable progress made at an international level.
Task Force 3 (Human Health Hazard and Risk Assessment)
The world literature on human toxicology on nanomaterials has been growing, building on work undertaken on combustion derived particles in the atmosphere. The toxicological properties of nanomaterials, like those of other toxicologically active substances, seem to be controlled by dose although the most appropriate metric for dose may be, for example, surface area rather than the mass which is the usual measure of dose. Within the UK, two calls for research proposals have been made and work has now started. Reviews of issues surrounding in vivo and in vitro toxicology studies on nanomaterials have been undertaken and a proposal to establish a national nanotechnology inhalation research center has been accepted for funding. The issues surrounding the characterization of nanoparticles will have a significant impact on the ability to perform human toxicity studies.
Task Force 4 (Environmental Hazard and Risk Assessment)
The range of work undertaken and in progress in the UK on environmental hazard and risk assessment supports a number of research priorities on the evaluation of eco hazard and fate and behavior in the environment. This has seen the successful launch of the Environmental Nanoscience Initiative (ENI), designed for capacity building, pump priming and knowledge transfer activity to drive forward research programs in this area. An assessment of the fitness for purpose of current ecotoxicological methods for hazard assessment of nanomaterials has been undertaken.
Task Force 5 (Social and Economic Dimensions of Nanotechnologies)
The UK has been active in engaging with the public in nanoscience. Few such initiatives have taken place elsewhere. Currently the results of the Demos’ People’s Inquiry are being considered, both in terms of their implications for Government policy and for the future of public engagement activities. High quality studies by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on the social and economic aspects of nanotechnologies have highlighted a number of further concerns and priorities for research. Key priorities for this Task Force will be the economic clustering of the UK innovation community and the consumer and regulatory implications of further nanotechnology development.
The report illustrates the extent of agreement achieved among the UK and the international community in identifying the key priorities for EHS research in nanotechnology. One of the key conclusions is that the next steps are to put in place the work required to fill the knowledge gaps and to address the seven overarching requirements outlined by the report's authors:
1) A fundamental requirement to be able to measure and characterize nanomaterials in a range of media (air, soil, water and in testing nanoparticles for toxicity). This includes having appropriate methods and instrumentation, the ability to differentiate manufactured materials from naturally occurring nanoparticles in the environment and the ability to measure nanomaterials in biological systems.
2) A critical need to understand which physico/chemical properties of nanomaterials are important for toxicity/ecotoxicity such as particle size and size distribution, surface area, surface properties, aspect ratio, surface charge etc.
3) A means of prioritizing nanomaterials for EHS studies and identifying a set of ‘reference’ or representative materials for testing. This requires separate consideration for occupational exposure and exposure from consumer products and via the environment.
4) A need to know whether methods used in hazard assessment of chemicals, specifically OECD test guidelines (or their equivalents), are fit for purpose for use with nanomaterials.
5) A testing plan for ‘reference’ or representative materials to establish potential hazards to human health and the environment for a range of nanoparticles through an agreed set of toxicity methods.
6) The requirement for a review of current risk assessment approaches and associated methodologies for chemicals with regard to their potential suitability for dealing with nanomaterials.
7) To understand the economic, social and ethical implications of nanotechnologies through a program of public dialogue, social and economic research.
The report emphasizes that the top priority will be to put resources into the issues in metrology and characterization that are needed to underpin the other research strands.
By Michael is author of two books by the Royal Society of Chemistry: Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology and Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny. Copyright © Nanowerk

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