Research Focuses on Potential Exposure to Nanomaterials
With nanomaterials in widespread use and development, what are the chances of exposure and how can exposure occur?
The miniscule materials are being widely used in consumer products such as paint, fabrics, cosmetics and sunscreen. As a result, there is potential for nanomaterials to be released to the environment during manufacturing processes, delivery, use and disposal.
Research is needed to determine if and where nanomaterials may be in our environment and to evaluate their characteristics. This will help scientists to develop models to predict how nanomaterials move in the environment and the ways humans and ecosystems may be exposed.
Ultimately, exposure data will assist health researchers to determine the potential for nanomaterials to cause adverse health or environmental impacts.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's nanotechnology research is determining the ecological and human health implications of exposure to nanomaterials. Researchers are interested in identifying sources of nanomaterials, determining how they are transported through the environment to their destination, and understanding how people and ecosystems may be exposed to nanomaterials.
The overarching research question initially being addressed is: Do the unique properties of nanomaterials require that they be evaluated differently than conventional environmental stressors?
If scientists find that nanomaterials can be evaluated using the same tools as conventional materials, then research can be incorporated into existing research programs. However, if they discover that conventional approaches are not effective in evaluating the behavior of nanomaterials, a sustained research effort may be required to specifically address the following questions: How do nanomaterials move though the environment?
- How do nanomaterials move though the environment?
- What are the pathways for exposure?
- What populations are likely to be exposed?
- What is the frequency and duration of exposure?
The research program is also focused on two long-term goals:
- To identify and evaluate the characteristics of individual nanomaterials that make them act differently in the environment than corresponding larger compounds, and
- To determine general traits of nanomaterials as a class of compounds, (e.g., mass, structure, surface area) that can be used as guidance for identifying situations where the materials may lead to increased exposure, toxicity or risk.
To meet those long-term goals, the research pursues:
- Sampling, separation, and detection of nanomaterials in the laboratory and then in the environment
- Evaluating, characterizing, and predicting the mobility of nanomaterials from their environmental release through transport, deposition, and re-release
- Identifying exposure pathways and characterizing ecological and human exposure to nanomaterials
Application and Impact
The methods, models, and information generated by the EPA’s nanotechnology research will be used by EPA and the scientific community to better assess the potential exposure and risk of nanomaterials, and to inform public policy decisions that will protect human health and the environment.
The information is intended to help decision makers answer questions such as:
- What nanomaterials are most likely to result in environmental exposure?
- What particular nanomaterial properties may raise toxicity concerns?
- Are nanomaterials with these properties likely to be present in the environment or biological systems at concentrations of concern, and what does this mean for risk?
- Can we change nanomaterial properties or reduce exposures if nanomaterials are present in the environment or biological systems at levels that may pose a risk?
Ross Highsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org), National Exposure Research Laboratory, EPA's Office of Research and Development, 919-541-7828.