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Although there is no proof of health risks to humans from nanoparticles, studies do show that materials at this scale behave in some worrying ways, for example, by slipping from the lungs into the bloodstream, and infiltrating other organs, possibly even the brain.

But current efforts at assessing the risk of nanoparticles, including ones already used in sunscreens, face creams, and food supplements, are unfocused and leave gaps in our understanding that “at best…create uncertainties – and at worst, dangers – for workers, companies, consumers, investors, and insurers,” according to Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

Today, the center released a new report calling for a systematic approach to risk research into nanotechnologies that would include research in a number of areas: the toxicity of substances, how to handle them in the workplace, possible links to specific diseases, and the long-term ways to predict what nanomaterials are likely to be dangerous – and how to design them to improve their safety.

The report also calls for more funding: a total of $50 million per year for two years, with more to follow.

This could be a hard sell at a time when attention is focused on high fuel prices and the steep bills from the conflict in Iraq.

Might it take a serious problem, then, with people getting hurt, before nanotoxicity research gets the attention it needs?

“I sincerely hope not,” Maynard told me over the phone. “My hope is that people see the need and the urgency to invest in this. If it does take an incident to galvanize people, that will be very sad, indeed, because it means we will have lost the opportunity to do something preemptively.” – By Kevin Bullis

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