In a sweeping critique made public Wednesday, an expert panel of the National Research Council said the federal government was not doing enough to identify potential health and environmental risks from engineered nanomaterials. It called for a sweeping new effort, involving key players in and out of government, to assess them. Nanomaterials are engineered on the scale of a billionth of a meter, perhaps 1/10,000 the width of a human hair. They are turning up in a range of items including consumer products like toothpaste and tennis rackets and industrial products like degreasers or adhesives. But some experts say they may pose health or environmental risks. For example, researchers in Scotland reported this year that carbon nanotubes may pose the same health risks as asbestos.
"Industry wants to run with it," said Andrew D. Maynard, chief science adviser to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology at the Woodrow Wilson Institute, who was the chairman of the panel. But he added, "one of the big barriers at the moment is understanding how to use it safely."
The panel analyzed the risk research strategy of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the program to coordinate federal efforts in nanotechnology research and development. Its report concluded that the initiative's strategy "does not present a vision, contain a clear set of goals, have a plan of action for how the goals are to be achieved, or describe mechanisms to review and evaluate funded research and assess whether progress has been achieved."