Nanotechnology risk research not always investigating risk, says GAO
Federally funded research into the environment, health and safety impacts of nanotechnology has more than doubled since 2006 to reach $90 million in fiscal 2010, but the Government Accountability Office says some of that research is only ancillary connected to studying those risks.
In a report (.pdf) dated May 21 that wasn't posted online until June 20, auditors say that nanotechnology risk evaluation programs worth $15 million in fiscal 2010 showed unclear evidence that they were relevant to actual EHS risk research.
Nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes and nanosilver are ubiquitous in products ranging from bicycle frames to cosmetics; one 2010 study estimated that products involving it were worth about $91 billion in the United States the year before. However, certain nanomaterials may pose health risks, the GAO notes. For example, carbon nanotubes in items such as touch screens and baseball bats have had an adverse effect on the respiratory systems of animals, causing pulmonary fibrosis among other thing, according to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health research cited by the GAO.
Nanomaterials that exist in food packaging may enter food supply undetected by the Food and Drug Administration, the report adds. The Environmental Protection Agency also reported problems detecting traces of nanomaterials because they may fall below EPA chemical detection scales.
Auditors say that any nanotechnology project even only vaguely connected to studying risks being classified by federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health as an EHS project. For example, agencies classified projects exploring how nanotechnology could be used for remediation against environmental contamination, or in detection of chemical hazards or pathogens as EHS projects, the GAO says.
Misclassification of research is an issue the GAO has written about since 2008, when it recommended that Office of Science and Technology Policy and the federal National Nanotechnology Coordination Office work together to create more explicit agency guidelines concerning nanotechnology research and budget reporting. However, the GAO reported that neither organization has yet to implement such suggestions.
The National Nanotechnology Initiative's recently redeveloped research strategy documents are incomplete and lack clear information on how agencies should report nanotechnology EHS project funding, adds the report.
Layla Jones is an editorial intern with the FierceMarkets Government Group.
- download the report, GAO-12-427 (.pdf)