Nanotechnology Research Center: Burden, Need and Impact

Burden, Need and Impact

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

Nanotechnology lab


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 engineered 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 ENMs could be similar to ultrafine air pollution or other dusts and fumes that cause pulmonary and cardiovascular effects.  Some ENMs 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.


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.


NIOSH is internationally recognized for its impact on health and safety issues related to advanced manufacturing and nanotechnology. Since its inception, the NTRC has published 12 guidance documents including Approaches to Safe Nanotechnology, Laboratory guidance, Engineering Control guidance and Small Business guidance, developed two recommended occupational exposure limits for ENMs, conducted over 100 field site visits, published over 1600 peer reviewed journal articles and actively participates in voluntary consensus standards development through organizations such as the International Standards Organization, ASTM, and Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

Page last reviewed: December 18, 2019