The EPA's nanotechnology applications and implications research

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Earlier this year, the Science Policy Council of the U.S. Environmental Protection EPA (EPA) issued the final version of its Nanotechnology White Paper (pdf download, 4.1 MB). The purpose of this White Paper is to inform EPA management of the science issues and needs associated with nanotechnology, to support related EPA program office needs, and to communicate these nanotechnology science issues to stakeholders and the public. While this has been the publicly most visible EPA activity with regard to nanotechnology, it is less widely known that the EPA, since 2002, has been spending more than $25 million through its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants program for 86 projects on research into the environmental aspects of nanotechnology. The projects are broadly grouped into two main categories: 1) nanotechnology applications - examining beneficial uses - where the areas of research include green manufacturing, contamination remediation, sensors for environmental pollutants, and waste treatment; and 2) nanotechnology implications - examining the potentially adverse health effects to humans and the environment - where research is grouped into five categories: aerosol, exposure assessment, fate and transport, life-cycle analysis, and toxicity.
In a recent paper in Journal of Environmental Monitoring ("Nanotechnology applications and implications research supported by the US Environmental Protection EPA STAR grants program") Dr. Nora Savage, an Environmental Engineer from the EPA, Dr. Treye A. Thomas, a toxicologist with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, and Dr. Jeremiah Duncan, the Nanotechnology Scholar in the Program on Science in the Public Interest at Georgetown University, provide an overview of the research performed by STAR grantees dealing with environmental aspects of nanotechnology.
A searchable database of all STAR grants including progress and final reports, where available, can be found on the EPA website.
Overview of nanotechnology research funded by EPA STAR grants
Research category
Number of grants
Award totals ($m)
Applications research
Green manufacturing
Implications research
Exposure assessment
Fate and transport
Life-cycle analysis
Grand total
While the initial STAR grants in 2002 were primarily on applications, the focus has since shifted to implications as concerns about the safety of nanomaterials have grown. Politicians, activist groups, and individuals in the general public have questioned the ability of federal agencies to adequately oversee the development of nanotechnology. In particular, the lack of human and environmental health and safety data so far has led to an absence of regulations on engineered nanoparticles and materials containing these particles. Some industry groups, especially the cosmetics industry, have actually used the lack of such data to argue that their products are safe and have aggressively lobbied against any regulations (see our Spotlight Does coating nanoparticles make them safe(r) for cosmetics?).
With the STAR grants, the EPA is funding a number of research projects that address these data gaps, resulting in a significant amount of new data. Addressing one of the current issues – the lack of cooperation and coordination among the various nanotechnology risk research projects – the authors point out that "the EPA will continue to concentrate extramural support on implications research in the near future. EPA expects that future calls for proposals will be done in collaboration with other federal agencies, as well as international agencies, such as the European Commission."
They also write that "EPA is taking a holistic approach to studying nanotechnology by targeting research towards the identification of its beneficial applications, seeking additional exposure and fate/transport data, developing appropriate risk assessment/management strategies, pursuing novel pollution prevention and environmentally benign techniques, and assisting in the development of novel treatment and remediation technologies."
To prepare for the challenges ahead, the EPA is "in the midst of developing a focused research strategy that capitalizes on EPA staff strengths and scientific expertise on the one hand, and that leverages needed data information from other stakeholders on the other. These activities taken together will enable the EPA to play a useful role in all areas of nanotechnology – directly in some, indirectly in others. It will also result in a more focused federal research plan for understanding and utilizing this emerging technology."
The authors point out the need for toxicity studies concerning the risks from nanomaterials released from consumer products during their entire lifecycle. Furthermore, as nanomaterials become more ubiquitous in commerce, they recommend that exposure studies should be conducted to determine the body burden of these compounds in humans, and the concentrations in the environment.
Finally, the paper notes that a screening strategy specific to nanomaterial toxicity is needed: "Such a screening strategy, including physiochemical characterization as well as in vitro and in vivo studies, is needed to ensure the quality of the research and the validity of the results." By modifying existing predictive models, or creating new ones, for estimating toxicity and exposure, the EPA and other agencies will be able to use such screening tools to develop a proactive approach for dealing with nanomaterials and improve overall environmental protection.
Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
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