On September 2006’s column, readers were given a glimpse into the world of nanotechnology, the science devoted to the manipulation of matter’s basic building blocks. The hope was to spark interest in this burgeoning field of scientific research.

The previous article alluded to the work of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a federal program funding nanotechnology research and development. Recently, the NNI developed a document entitled, “Environmental, Health, and Safety Research Needs for Engineered Nanoscale Materials.” The studies described in this document examine broader environmental research, health research, safety research, development and implementation concerns related to nanoproducts. 

The Impetus

No doubt this document was developed in response to the outcries of many individuals exposing, and rightly so, the necessity of research in order to convince the public of the future value of nanotechnology. Neal Lane, former science adviser to President Bill Clinton, warned that nanotechnology's revolutionary potential was in danger of not being realized due to the lack of clear communication about its risks1.

Further, Andrew Maynard of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington cautioned that time was running out to get it right. 

“If the public loses confidence in the commitment – of governments, business and the science community – to conduct sound and systematic research into possible risks (associated with nanotechnology), then the enormous potential of nanotechnology will be squandered. We cannot let that happen2.”

The ultimate fear is that an environmental, medical or safety problem – real or sensationalized – with a product or application that's labeled "nanotechnology" might diminish public confidence and financial backing in nanotechnology's future and result in imprudent regulations.


Sardonically, this fear was realized on Thanksgiving 2006 when the headline “EPA to Review Safety of Products Made with Silver ‘Nanoparticles’” was released3. The driver for this EPA review was the Samsung washing machine “SilverWash.” It contains silver nanoparticles and claims to kill bacteria in clothes by releasing silver ions into the water during the wash. U.S. water authorities are concerned that discharges of nanosilver might accumulate in the water system3. This would be the first time EPA regulates a form of nanotechnology. 


In response to this decision, one nanotech company removed any reference to nanosilver in their marketing information. Additionally, other companies are not allowing the words “nanotechnology,” “nano-engineered,” etc. to be used in association with their products3. 


This stigma is exactly what nano-experts feared would eventually occur, and it could be avoided if government, corporations and the science and engineering community would make an effort to:
  • Set aside resources necessary to investigate nanotechnology's possible environmental, health and safety risks.
  • Incorporate nanotechnology education into the curriculum of schools.
  • Provide the public with balanced and easily understood information about nanotechnology's potential benefits and its possible risks1.

Consequently, the NNI document mentioned earlier seeks to do exactly that. The ultimate purpose of the document is to facilitate the identification, prioritization and implementation of research and other activities required for the responsible research, development, utilization and oversight of nanotechnology4.

The research by EPA and other institutions should not be viewed negatively but as an opportunity to develop standards and build trust3. “This is not just a question about nanotechnology,” says Maynard. “It is about whether governments, industry and scientists around the world are willing to make safe nanotechnology a priority2.”

However, the question I have is not whether or not the priority will be set – I think that has already been set in motion – but whether or not these initiatives will be carried out ethically and with the utmost transparency. Ultimately, the desired outcome is the development of safe nanoproducts along with a channel of free-flowing information between all entities involved, including the public. IH