Racing to catch up with one of science's fastest-growing technologies, federal researchers will begin studying the health and environmental implications of nanomaterials widely used in paints, coatings, and other products.
Nanomaterial formulations have imbued many of today's newest paint and coatings with antimicrobial, anticorrosion, and other important properties.
Now, researchers want to make sure the products are completely safe for humans and the environment. The new study partners scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Tiny Materials, Big Impact
"Nanotechnology and nanomaterials used in the development of these products improve our everyday lives, but it is important that we understand how humans are exposed to nanomaterials and to assess the risks they may pose to people's health and the environment," said Dr. Tina Bahadori, national program director for EPA's Chemical Safety for Sustainability Research.
Nanomaterials are now being used in hundreds of consumer products, but development and commercialization have outpaced full knowledge of their effects on humans and the environment, authorities say.
Nanomaterials are currently used in hundreds of consumer products, according to the EPA.
The materials—100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair—have unique properties that are not fully understood, the government says.
Research is needed to identify methods that will allow manufacturers and other stakeholders to ensure that products containing these materials are not harmful, the agency says.
Nanomaterials in Coatings
The new research focus will include nanomaterials that are used in paints and coatings, EPA said. Those materials include:
Carbon Nanotubes: Carbon materials have found varied applications in paints, coatings and a wide range of other uses. They have also, in past research, exhibited some toxicological impacts. EPA research will provide data, models, test methods, and best practices to discover the acute health effects of carbon nanotubes and identify methods to predict them.
Recently, a new corrosion-resistant steel coating made with fullerene carbon nanotubes was awarded a $100,000 grant to develop and manufacture the coatings.
In 2011, scientists were working to develop anti-icing coating technology using carbon nanotubes.
Cerium Oxide: Nanoscale cerium oxide is used in everything from electronics, to biomedical supplies, to energy and fuel additives. The EPA reports that many applications of engineered cerium oxide nanoparticles naturally disperse themselves into the environment, which increases the risk of exposure.
Titanium Dioxide: Nano-titanium dioxides are used in paints and coatings, among other products.
In March, Dechema/VCI Working Group released a 10-year study on risks of nanomaterials. The research stated that UV-activated nano-titanium dioxide used in paints could potentially combat air pollutants and fungi and bacteria on some surfaces.
However, in 2011, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health stated that airborne, ultrafine particles of titanium dioxide could potentially cause cancer.
Nano Silver: This nanomaterial has been incorporated into a variety of materials to eliminate bacteria and odor.
Two new coatings systems using patented silver nanotechnology were recently introduced to combat mold and bacteria in food and medical facilities. The manufacturer said its coating system used a proprietary resistance mechanism based on a nano-silver complex to provide a "permanent" and environmentally compatible long-term protection against mold and bacteria on coating film.
Iron: While nano-scale iron is being investigated for many uses, one promising application is to remove contamination from groundwater, the EPA stated.
Iron nanoparticles encapsulated in a rust-preventing polymer coating could be the future to cleaning up groundwater contaminated with toxic chemicals, a leading water expert says.
Researchers have used nanomaterials in coatings for many applications. Bioni USA recently launched two antimicrobial coatings that incorporate silver nanotechnology.
International Research Effort
The research is part of a larger international effort that focuses on identifying the origins of nanomaterials, determining how they interact with the human body and the environment, and developing sustainable manufacturing processes.
Bahadori said, "This innovative research greatly improves what is known about nanomaterials and will inform the future design of more sustainable, effective nanomaterials."
Dr. Treye Thomas, program manager for the CPSC Nanotechnology program, noted that although nanomaterials are popular, "the need for additional research and knowledge on how they affect consumers is great."
"The CPSC staff is working diligently to meet the challenges involved in regulating this emerging technology and is pleased to be collaborating with staff at EPA to develop test methods and exposure data to adequately address health and safety concerns," Thomas said.