Nanomaterials’ Risks Largely Unknown, Federal Report Finds

For years, scientists and industrialists have touted nanosized particles as an innovation destined to advance practically every technology.

But a Government Accountability Office report released Friday warned that the Environmental Protection Agency is not doing enough to ensure that nanoparticles are safe.

“The use of nanomaterials in products is growing faster than our understanding of the risks these materials pose to human health and the environment,” the report said.

“Nanomaterials” are engineered particles on the scale of one-billionth of a meter. For example, nanoparticles in sunscreen are smaller than light wavelengths and make lotions transparent. The world market for nanomaterials is expected to climb to $2.6 billion by 2015.

Their tiny dimensions, however, may also pose serious risks, the GAO report noted. They are small enough to permeate cell membranes, linger in lungs, enter the bloodstream or bypass water supply filters.

But there are currently no regulations for companies to report where and when they put nanomaterials into their products, or to conduct safety tests.

The EPA in 2008 launched a voluntary program for companies to report when they used nanomaterials, but the agency estimated that only 10 percent of nanoparticles commonly used were reported. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies has identified more than 1,000 nanoparticle-containing products, ranging from medical devices to antibacterial fruit coatings.

The GAO report recommended that the EPA use existing regulations to force companies to report nanomaterial use, and encouraged the agency to move forward with its plan to develop new nanomaterial regulations by December 2010.

EPA Assistant Administrator Stephen Owens agreed with the GAO’s recommendations.

“A challenge for environmental protection is to help fully realize the societal benefits of nanotechnology while identifying and minimizing any adverse impacts to humans or ecosystems from exposure to nanoscale materials,” he wrote.

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