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Nanomaterials Environmental Health and Safety

Photomicrograph of ciliate T. pyriformis during cell division with accumulated quantum dots appearing red.

Photomicrograph of ciliate T. pyriformis during cell division with accumulated quantum dots appearing red.

Credit: NIST


The Administration calls for increased use of new technologies to enable innovation and economic growth and also increased environmental stewardship. Nanomaterials represent a rapidly growing new technology. Year after year, global spending on nanotechnology research and development (R&D) has ratcheted upward—to more than $13 billion in 2008. In 2008, federal funding for nanotechnology research totaled nearly $1.5 billion—or nearly triple the amount in 2001—and U.S. private-sector spending totaled about $2.5 billion. These sizable—and still growing—R&D investments in nanotechnology are evidence of the tremendous technological promise of the field and the fierce global competition to realize it. Currently more than 800 products on the market reportedly contain nanomaterials.1 The estimated value of nano-enabled products reached $166 billion in 2008.2 By 2014, this total is projected to climb to $2.6 trillion.3 Yet, despite the vast potential of nanotechnology, its future is vulnerable to uncertainties about the environmental, health, and safety (EHS) risks of nanomaterials. Industry and regulatory agencies require a science-based approach to identify, assess, and avoid or manage potential risks.

Proposed NIST Program

In its second assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology called on NIST to lead the development of materials and analytical standards for nanotechnology EHS research. "Such standards," the council said, "are critical to characterizing and monitoring effects of nanomaterials."4 The National Academies and others have issued similar calls. In response, NIST will:

  • Develop reference materials for widely produced nanomaterials used in a broad range of applications, including electronics, personal care products, and construction materials;
  • Provide technical support and help to lead development of documentary standards that enable consistent and reproducible measurements of nanomaterial properties;
  • Develop instruments and transferable methods to measure key physical and chemical properties of nanomaterials; and
  • Generate accurate data on the properties of key nanomaterials in relevant media, such as serum and groundwater, as needed by industry and regulatory agencies to make sound, science-based risk assessments.

Expected Impacts

As a result of R&D accomplishments under the proposed initiative:

  • Industry will be able to accurately identify and quantify EHS risks posed by nanomaterials under consideration for commercial products and applications;
  • Regulatory agencies will be able to accurately identify and assess nanomaterial-related EHS risks and to evaluate efforts to prevent or mitigate identified risks;
  • Industry will have the necessary measurement tools to demonstrate compliance with any prospective nanomaterial-related EHS standards and regulations; and
  • Consumers will be able to obtain full and accurate information concerning any EHS risks associated with nanomaterials incorporated into commercial products.

1According to the Consumer Products Inventory maintained by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars,, accessed 02/05/09.

2The Nanotechnology Opportunity Report (NOR) 2008, 3rd Edition, Research and Markets, June 2008.

3Taking Action on Nanotechnology's Value Chain, Lux Research, October 2004.

4President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, The National Nanotechnology Initiative: Second Assessment and Recommendations of the National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel, April 2008.


Created August 18, 2009, Updated December 11, 2018