Nanotechnology Research Center

Burden, Need and Impact

The NTRC identifies priorities to guide research investments, and bases those priorities on the evidence of burden, need and impact.

Burden

Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications. The President’s 2019 Budget requests $1.4 billion for the National Nanotechnology Initiative, with a cumulative total of nearly $27 billion in nanotechnology research since 2001. However, less than 3% of the cumulative Federal budget has been directed to study of the Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) potential of nanomaterials. The US recognized that the historical investment was not sufficient to address EHS knowledge gaps, and the amount projected for FY 2019 EHS research is approximately 5% the total NNI investment.

Air pollution (consisting of incidental nanoparticles) epidemiology has demonstrated that ultrafine particles can affect the lung, cardiovascular, and other organ systems; and are responsible for excess respiratory and cardiovascular mortality. Recent air pollution and animal studies have shown various ultrafine and nanoscale particles are linked to adverse neurological changes.  Welding fumes, which contain several types of nanoparticles, are known to cause toxicological and carcinogenic effects.   Development and commercialization of nanotechnology-based products and applications is occurring at a rapid rate, making it imperative that more information on the potential health hazards from exposure to engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) be generated. The number of workers exposed to EMNs is not known, but market reports indicate that large and growing quantities of ENMs are being used in commerce, and workers are involved throughout their manufacture, formulation and use to create nanomaterial products. While It is too early to identify the exact burden of ENMs to workers, it is reasonable to assume that health effects from exposure to engineered nanoparticles could be similar to ultrafine air pollution or other dusts and fumes that cause pulmonary and cardiovascular effects.  Some engineered nanoparticles appear to be 10-100 times more reactive or potent than their bulk counterparts, so one would expect a commensurate increase in burden for a given exposure. Based on these developing trends, burden in terms of morbidity and mortality has the potential to be large, significant and costly. Failure to develop the technology responsibly, including worker protection, may ultimately place a burden on capital, entrepreneurial investment, and ultimate benefit to society.

Nanomaterial measurement in a laboratory

Need

Nanotechnology is continuing to emerge, as commercial application of the technology is only about 20 years old. Consequently, there are many unanswered questions about the risk management continuum of hazard, exposure, risk, and control. Although hazard is the driver of these actions, the wide use of ENMs in commerce means workers potentially have exposure to them. Employers, workers, and other decision makers are asking for information on all steps of risk management, from hazard identification to control approaches. Consequently, we must address all the steps in the hazard continuum.

Based on burden, need, and impact, the following goals are the top three priorities for the NTRC from the Research Plan, Continuing To Protect the Nanotechnology Workforce: NIOSH Nanotechnology Research Plan for 2018–2025External:

Priority 1—Strategic Goal 1: Increase understanding of new nanomaterials and related health risks to nanomaterial workers.

Impact.  This research will contribute to the body of knowledge about the adverse health effects in animals exposed to various ENMs. The findings will have a direct impact on risk assessment of potential outcomes for exposed workers; contribute to epidemiologic research; and provide background that can be used to create guidance on control technologies and medical surveillance.

Scanning electron image of carbon nanotubes in a cellular structure.

Priority 2—Strategic Goal 3: Build upon initial guidance materials to inform nanomaterial workers, employers, health professionals, regulatory agencies, and decision-makers about hazards, risks, and risk management approaches.

Impact. Various target audiences such as nanotechnology workers and employers, occupational safety and health professionals, policy-makers, decision-makers, and/or the scientific community in research, manufacturing, construction, mining, oil and gas, and healthcare will begin or continue to apply NIOSH guidance to responsibly develop, handle, and commercialize ENMs. Through strategic planning, research, partnering with stakeholders, and making information widely available, the NTRC will continue supporting the responsible development of nanotechnology by translating research into effective risk management guidance and practices across the lifecycle of ENM-enabled products.

Priority 3—Activity/Output Goal 3.1.3: Use a nanomaterial hazard banding classification scheme to group ENMs.

Impact.  This research will investigate the evidence for developing predictive algorithms of structure-activity relationships and comparative toxicity for use in quantitative risk assessment. Findings from this research will provide the scientific basis for developing occupational exposure limits for individual nanomaterials or groups of nanomaterials.

Page last reviewed: January 16, 2019