Increasing our understanding of how matter on the nanoscale behaves and interacts with humans and ecologic systems is socially and economically important. In a world where the needs of a growing population threaten to outstrip increasingly limited resources and many global challenges remain unresolved— from disease to hunger to renewable energy— nanotechnology, along with other fields of technologic innovation, can contribute to a sustainable future (Maynard 2010). Nanoscale science and technology are leading to new ideas and tools that can enhance existing technologies and create new ones, help to support new jobs, revitalize economies, and contribute to solutions to some of society’s most pressing problems. But investing in research and development is just one step toward ensuring socially responsible, relevant, and successful technologic innovation. Realizing the economic and societal benefits of nanotechnology also requires educating the workforce, lowering barriers to technology transfer, and engaging with diverse stakeholders. And success with nanotechnology will also depend on developing and implementing new approaches to risk prevention and risk management that avoid past mistakes, that address issues in the innovation process, and that develop materials responsibly without impeding innovation unduly.
As nanotechnology research and development have led to new materials— nanomaterials— questions about the safety of these materials have prompted concerns that they are likely to be attended by new risks. Specifically, concerns have been raised that materials behaving in unconventional ways might lead to unanticipated risks to human health and the environment. Those concerns were underpinned and to an extent driven by research in the 1990s that showed that inhaled fine particles have the potential to cause more serious health effects than those estimated in studies of larger particles (for example, Oberdorster et al. 2007). The research signaled the beginning of a paradigm shift away from an understanding that risk stems from chemical composition alone to a recognition that physical form and chemical properties are both important for understanding, predicting, and preventing harm.
The concerns were exacerbated by the increase in production of materials that behaved in unique ways because of their physical form on the nanoscale and by growing awareness that methods for detecting, characterizing, monitoring, or controlling these materials in the environment were not available and that the materials were in products or in environments in which human exposures could occur (for example, see Maynard et al. 2006). Consequently, there is uncertainty about the potential human health and environmental effects of products emerging from nanotechnology and recognition that the safe and successful development of nanotechnology depends on early, strategic action to address potential risks.
In response to the concerns, there has been an increase in funding for research and in peer-reviewed publications addressing the environmental, health, and safety (EHS) effects of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) (PCAST 2010).