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Environmental Factor, September 2012

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Miller promotes prevention by design at nano meeting

By Cindy Loose

Aubrey Miller, M.D.

“Understanding, in advance, the potential hazards of the entire life cycle of a nanomaterial, from creation to the landfill, just makes sense,” said Miller. “Even so, it’s a very exciting and innovative approach.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

At NIEHS, nanotechnology safety is a top priority, said NIEHS Senior Medical Advisor Aubrey Miller, M.D., at the Safe Nano Design Workshop Aug. 14-16. Miller addressed top scientists in industry, government and academia who gathered this month for the meeting at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering of the University at Albany, State University of New York, which co-sponsored the workshop with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The three-day conference focused on prevention through design — a phrase which embodies the effort to avoid potential hazards in nanoscale products and devices, by anticipating them in advance. NIEHS is in the forefront of that effort, both by conducting studies of widely used classes of nanomaterials and by collaborating with numerous entities, Miller explained. Collaborations, he added, help guide research in the most productive, nonduplicative way and ensures wide dissemination of available information.

Unlimited potential, but are some nanomaterials potentially harmful?

Already, nanomaterials are being used in a wide variety of consumer and industrial products, from cosmetics and medicines, to airplane wings and advanced optics. Global demand for nanomaterials is expected to reach $3.1 trillion in just three years.

While the promise is unlimited, there is limited information about the unique electrical, magnetic, and physical properties that emerge when substances are engineered to nanoscale. According to Miller, one nanometer is about 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

“The aim of prevention by design in nanotechnology is similar to that of green chemistry — to address problems up front, before damage is done to the environment and human health,” said Miller. “The difference is that we are starting prevention work early in an emerging field. By doing so, we can avoid the mistakes of an older industry that unleashed toxic chemicals into the environment before we understood the implications of new discoveries.”

NIEHS initiatives to promote nano safety

Current research programs within NIEHS emphasize understanding potential hazards from inhaled nanomaterials, Miller told the group. NIEHS scientists are studying the relationship between the physical and chemical properties of specific classes of nanomaterials and the biological reactions they may cause. Other internal studies will be focused on developing nanotechnology-based sensors that can monitor exposure to nanomaterials in the workplace and among the general public. NIEHS scientists also plan to extend their research into exposures through routes other than inhalation.

Scientists funded through the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) also are focused on understanding the potential health implications of various classes of nanomaterials and on guiding the use of safe materials in nano-enabled products in the marketplace.

One DERT initiative created centers with a three-fold mission — to conduct in vitro and in vivo whole animal studies, and to model risk assessment tools based on both types of studies. Additionally, each center will collect and share data on a common set of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) — silver nanoparticles, cerium dioxide or ceria, and multiwalled carbon nanotubes. The centers will then use the shared data on these ENMs to apply different risk assessment modeling systems. By integrating results from these studies, the centers will be able to provide detailed, comprehensive hazard ranking and risk assessment information to regulators and the public.

Miller also described the work of the National Toxicology Program (NTP), headquartered at NIEHS. NTP has been conducting toxicity studies of a variety of different types of nanomaterials, including carbon fullerenes, silver-based nanoparticles, and 24 commercially available multiwalled carbon nanotubes.

Ongoing studies are focused on nano-sized ceria, which is being used as a diesel fuel additive. Studies that compare the reactions of both healthy and asthmatic cells are planned.

(Cindy Loose is a contract writer with the NIEHS office in Bethesda, Md.)

The NIEHS role in a government-wide nano initiative

Miller noted that in addition to conducting research within NIEHS and funding scientists around the country as part of its One Nano initiative, NIEHS is also involved in a number of collaborative efforts with its partners.

NIEHS collaborates with 25 different federal agencies, through efforts organized by the National Nanotechnology Initiative. NIEHS also plays an important role in the development of health research strategies for the government, through collaboration with the Nanotechnology Environmental and Health Implications working group.

Disseminating information about what is known is also a hallmark of the work being done. To that end, NIEHS was involved in the development of the Nanomaterial Registry launched this summer — a resource that allows any scientist to find the latest information and studies available about nanomaterials.

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