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Your Environment. Your Health.

Evaluating the Safety of Engineered Nanomaterials

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"We currently know very little about nanoscale materials' effect on human health and the environment. The same properties that make nanomaterials so potentially beneficial in drug delivery and product development are some of the same reasons we need to be cautious about their presence in the environment"
— Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP)

What are nanomaterials?

Engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) are very tiny materials about 100,000 times smaller than a single strand of hair. They represent a significant breakthrough in material design and development for industry and consumer products, including cosmetics, stain-resistant clothing, pesticides, tires, and electronics, as well as in medicine for purposes of diagnosis, imaging and drug delivery.

Recovery Act funds have allowed us to expand our efforts in this important area…We want to be sure that we come away with some better tools to assess the health and safety of nanomaterials. 
- Sally Tinkle, Ph.D., senior science advisor at NIEHS

Why are people concerned about nanomaterials?

Though engineered nanomaterials have a lot of potential for improving public health, exposure to nanomaterials also has the potential for negative health effects. Currently, very little is known about nanoscale materials' effect on human health and the environment. The NIEHS is supporting the development of nanotechnologies that can be used to advance environmental health research, as well as investigating the potential risks these materials pose to human health.

How is the Recovery Act advancing nanomaterials research?

Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the NIEHS awarded about $13 million to 13 new, two-year projects. The focus of the projects is to develop better methods to assess human exposure and health effects associated with nanomaterials. This research is essential for creating a scientifically sound basis for hazard assessment, as well as the safe design and development of ENMs for new industrial and medical applications.

Recovery Act Spotlight

Protecting human health from adverse effects of engineered nanomaterials

ResearcherResearch Description
James C. Bonner, Ph.D.
North Carolina State
University, Raleigh
Lung Toxicity of Carbon Nanotubes in Models of Pre-Existing Respiratory Disease
Dr. Bonner and his team is testing whether inhaled carbon nanotubes promote lung fibrosis (scarring of lung tissue), particularly in individuals with preexisting respiratory disease.
Edward David Crandall, Ph.D.
University of Southern
California, Los Angeles
Interactions of engineered nanomaterials with lung alveolar epithelium
Dr. Crandall is also studying the effects of inhaled engineered nanomaterials on lung tissue to help improve future nanobiomedical applications.
Alison Elder, Ph.D.
(with Cory Pearson & Gunter Oberdorster)
University of Rochester, N.Y.
Hazard Assessment and Risk Estimation of Inhaled Nanomaterials Exposure
Dr. Elder and her team are studying the effects of inhaled engineered nanomaterials on the lung and central nervous system, leading to the development of tests to measure exposure risk.
Andrij Holian, Ph.D.
University of Montana,
Bioactivity of engineered fiber-shaped nanomaterials
Dr. Holian is investigating the role of nanomaterials in chronic inflammation and fibrosis (excessive scar tissue). His research may lead to the development of new therapeutic targets for respiratory illness.
Andre Elias Nel, M.D.
University of California, Los Angeles
Predictive Toxicological Paradigms to Establish Inhalation Toxicology Models
Project to develop reliable and reproducible test procedures that can be used by academic centers, industry and government agencies as a screen for nanomaterial safety.
Galya Orr, Ph.D.
Battelle Pacific Northwest
Laboratories, Richland, WA
Tying Distinct Nanoparticle Properties to Cellular Interactions, Fate and Response
Dr. Orr's research will provide critical information about how inhaled nanomaterials interact at the cellular level, supporting methods to determine toxicity and biocompatibility.
Christopher D. Vulpe, Ph.D.
University of California,
Integrated nanoparticle characterization and toxicity assessment
Dr. Vulpe is conducting a study to assess the safety of nanowires, a nanomaterial expected to be used in a broad variety of products.
Paul K. Westerhoff, Ph.D.
Arizona State University,
Detection of engineered nanomaterials in drinking water, food, commercial product
Dr. Westerhoff’s research will develop new methodologies for quantifying the size, number concentration and mass concentration of engineered nanomaterials within matrices (water, food, biological fluids), leading to improved exposure assessment and prevention.
Frank A. Witzmann, Ph.D.
Indiana University,
Characterization Methodologies & Proteomics to Assess Carbon Nanotube Exposure
Dr. Witzman is developing individual biological measurements (biomarkers) that can reliably detect and predict response to water dispersible engineered nanomaterials in the digestive tract.
Kent Pinkerton, Ph.D.
University of California, Davis
Novel approaches to evaluate carbon nanotube health impacts
Dr. Pinkerton is studying whether inhaled ultrafine single-walled carbon nanotube particles produce harmful effects through physical and/or chemical interactions in the respiratory system.
Timothy R. Nurkiewicz, Ph.D.
West Virginia University
Microvascular Health and Nanoparticle Exposure
Dr. Nurkiewicz is testing whether the intensity and duration of effects of specific nanomaterial inhalation is highly dependent on developmental age.
Wynne K. Schiffer, Ph.D.
Feinstein Institute for Medical Research
Imaging nanoparticle interactions with living systems
Dr. Schiffer is developing tools needed to evaluate the health and safety of nanomaterials using molecular imaging. His research will broaden our understanding of nanoparticle behavior, revealing the pathways nanomaterials take in living systems and identifying some of the acute and long-term health effects of nanoparticle exposure.


Learn more about what NIEHS is doing to understand the health impacts of Engineered Nanomaterials

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