Are Nanomaterials Safe? Getting a Handle on Nanotoxicity and Risk

Are Nanomaterials Safe?
Reported by
Sheila Sperber Haas

Posted October 12, 2007


Nanoparticles—almost atom-sized—are defined as any particle smaller than roughly 100 nanometers (nm). That is 500 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Nano-sized particles have been around for some time as the byproducts of both natural and manmade events in the environment and workplace. Heating and combustion processes, for example, produce them efficiently in the form of ultrafine dusts, smoke, and fumes. In the 1980s, scientists distinguished them as ultrafine particles and began to study their health effects in humans, especially in the lungs.

Now people have learned how to engineer them, slashing the particle size of metals and other chemicals to nano-dimensions in a revolutionary fusion of chemistry and form that transforms what these substances can do, and thus what can be done with them. Yet relatively little is known about potential biological risks, and growing awareness of these issues has led to the emerging discipline of nanotoxicology. The May 14, 2007, meeting sponsored by the Predictive Toxicology Discussion Group brought together three scientists with distinctly different involvements in confronting the challenges posed by the uncharted territory of assessing the safety of engineered nanomaterials. They defined and discussed science, policy, and social issues, and then some of the regulatory-based concerns.

Use the tabs above to find a meeting report and multimedia from this event.

Web Sites

Nanotechnology: A Primer
A simple slide show by Andrew Maynard in PDF format (1.08 MB).

The Promise of Nanotechnology
Cover story from the May 2007 issue of the Woodrow Wilson Center's newsletter Counterpoint.

Journal Articles

Günter Oberdörster

Carter JM, Corson N, Driscoll KE, et al. 2006. A comparative dose-related response of several key pro- and antiinflammatory mediators in the lungs of rats, mice, and hamsters after subchronic inhalation of carbon black. J. Occup. Environ. Med. 48: 1265-1278.

Colvin V. The potential environmental impact of engineered nanomaterials. 2003. Nat. Biotechnol. 21: 1166-1170.

Elder A, Oberdörster G. 2006. Translocation and effects of ultrafine particles outside of the lung. Clin. Occup. Environ. Med. 5: 785-796.

Holsapple MP, Farland WH, Landry TD, et al. 2005. Research strategies for safety evaluation of nanomaterials, part II: toxicological and safety evaluation of nanomaterials, current challenges and data needs. Toxicol. Sci. 88: 12-17. FULL TEXT

Maynard AD, Aitken RJ, Butz T, et al. 2006. Safe handling of nanotechnology. Nature 444: 267-269.

Oberdörster G, Maynard A, Donaldson K, et al. 2006. Principles for characterizing the potential human health effects from exposure to nanomaterials: elements of a screening strategy. Part. Fibre Toxicol. 2: 8. FULL TEXT

Ruckerl R, Phipps RP, Schneider A, Frampton M, et al. 2007. Ultrafine particles and platelet activation in patients with coronary heart disease—results from a prospective panel study. Part Fibre Toxicol. 22: 1. FULL TEXT

Andrew Maynard

Kulinowski K. 2004. Nanotechnology: From "Wow" to "Yuck"? Bull. Sci. Technol. Soc. 24: 13-20.

Macoubrie J. 2005. Informed public perceptions of nanotechnology and trust in government. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies; Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. (PDF, 456 KB)

Petersen A, Anderson A, Wilkinson C, Allan S. 2007. Nanotechnologies, risk and society. Health, Risk & Society 9: 117-124.

Rejeski D. 2004. The next small thing. The Environmental Forum, March/April. (PDF, 165 KB)

Wendy Sanhai

Ferrari M. 2005. Cancer nanotechnology: opportunities and challenges. Nat. Rev. Cancer 5: 161-171.

Ferrari M. and Downing G. 2005. Medical nanotechnology: shortening clinical trials and regulatory pathways? Biodrugs 19: 203-210.

Nanotechnology Task Force. 2007. Nanotechnology: A Report of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (PDF, 286 KB)

Taylor MR. 2006. Regulating the products of nanotechnology: Does FDA have the tools it needs? The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies; Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.


Günter Oberdörster, PhD

University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry
e-mail | web site | publications

Günter Oberdörster is professor of environmental medicine in the Department of Environmental Medicine and head of the Division of Respiratory Biology & Toxicology at the University of Rochester. He also serves as director of the University of Rochester Ultrafine Particle Center. Oberdörster is known for his research on the effects and underlying mechanisms of lung injury induced by inhaled non-fibrous and fibrous particles, including extrapolation modeling and risk assessment. His research on with ultrafine particles influenced the field of inhalation toxicology, raising awareness of their unique toxicological potential. He has extensive expertise in the toxicology and health effects of air pollutants, their risk assessment, and toxicokinetics.

Oberdörster earned his DVM and PhD (Pharmacology) from the University of Giessen in Germany. He has served on many national and international committees.

Andrew D. Maynard, PhD

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
e-mail | web site | publications

Andrew Maynard serves as the science advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. He is internationally recognized as a research leader and lecturer in the fields of aerosol characterization and the implications of nanotechnology to occupational health. He trained as a physicist at Birmingham University in the UK, and after completing a PhD in ultrafine aerosol analysis at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University (UK) joined the Aerosols research group of the UK Health and Safety Executive. In 2000 he moved to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the USA, where he focused on addressing nanoparticle exposure in the workplace.

Maynard's expertise covers many facets of aerosols and health implications, from occupational aerosol sampler design to state-of-the-art nanoparticle analysis, as reflected in over 70 publications. He has represented NIOSH on the Nanomaterial Science, Engineering and Technology subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council (NSET), and cochaired the Nanotechnology Health and Environment Implications (NEHI) working group of NSET. In addition, Maynard was chair of the International Standards Organization Working Group on size selective sampling in the workplace. Maynard holds an associate professorship at the University of Cincinnati, and is an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, UK. He is a regular international speaker on nanotechnology, and frequently appears in print and on radio and television.

Wendy R. Sanhai, PhD

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Wendy Sanhai is senior scientific advisor in the Office of the Commissioner at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She is responsible for developing and implementing scientific initiatives and strategic alliances under the agency's Critical Path Initiative. Sanhai also serves as FDA's chair for the Nanotechnology Sub-Committee of the Interagency Oncology Task Force and as FDA's Federal Liaison on numerous consortia and committees. She has received numerous awards and commendations.

Prior to her current appointment, Sanhai was the director of Public-Private Partnerships at the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) and was the senior Foundation officer responsible for creating, implementing, managing and evaluating all new and existing programs in clinical research, education and training. In this role, she served as the chief scientific liaison to the NIH, other Federal agencies, including the FDA and the CDC, academia, industry, and non-profit organizations.

Sanhai has a PhD in biochemistry and structural biology from the School of Medicine, State University of New York at Buffalo.

Sheila Sperber Haas

Sheila Sperber Haas is a freelance science and health care writer living in New York City who writes about issues ranging from molecular biology and immunology to complementary and alternative medicine. Her varied projects include Dermatology Focus, bringing the forefront of molecular investigative dermatology to a clinical readership.