U.S. nanotechnology plans fall short: report

CHICAGO Wed Dec 10, 2008 6:03pm EST

A fullerene or ''buckyball'' molecule with noble gas trapped inside is shown in this undated artist concept handout image. REUTERS

A fullerene or ''buckyball'' molecule with noble gas trapped inside is shown in this undated artist concept handout image.

Credit: Reuters

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. plan for the emerging field of nanotechnology lacks vision, fails to assess risk and leaves the industry vulnerable to public mistrust, the National Research Council said in a report released on Wednesday.

The report found serious gaps in the government's plan for determining if there are risks posed by nanomaterials and called for an effective national plan for identifying and managing potential risks.

Nanotechnology, the design and manipulation of materials thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair, has been hailed as a way to make strong, lightweight materials, better cosmetics and even tastier food.

But scientists are only starting to look at the impact such tiny objects may have. Some studies suggest nano-sized objects may have different effects in the body than larger ones.

"The current plan catalogs nano-risk research across several federal agencies, but it does not present an overarching research strategy needed to gain public acceptance and realize the promise of nanotechnology," said David Eaton, chairman of the council's committee that produced the report and a public health expert at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Currently, more than 600 products involving nanomaterials are already on the market. Most are health and beauty products, but many researchers are working on ways to use the materials for medical therapies, food additives and electronics.

The committee said the current U.S. strategy, developed by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, did not provide for adequate research to ensure the safety of workers, consumers and the environment from unexpected and possibly toxic properties of these materials.

LACKING VISION

The report said the plan lacked vision, clear objectives, a comprehensive assessment of the state of the science, and a "road map that describes how research progress will be measured and the estimated resources required to conduct such research."

Rep. Bart Gordon, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, said he shared many concerns raised by the report and intended to reintroduce a bill to bolster research efforts in the next Congress.

David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, an advocacy group, said the report echoed calls by industry and congressional leaders for a revamped research plan for nanotechnology.

"The administration's delay has hurt investor and consumer confidence," Rejeski said in a statement. "It has gambled with public health and safety."

German chemicals group BASF joined DuPont, the American Chemical Council and other industry groups in support of the National Research Council's findings.

Raymond David, North American manager of toxicology for BASF, said there has been "an explosion" of scientific studies exploring the risks of nanotechnology but the research has suffered from a lack of coordination.

He said the European Union had a framework for identifying specific safety issues to be addressed. "In the United States, we have not done that," he said.

The National Research Council is one of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent organization that guides the government on medical, scientific and engineering policy.

(Editing by David Storey)

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