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October 17, 2005
Volume 83, Number 42
p. 33


Nano Database Goes Online

Collection of papers on environmental and health impacts of nanomaterials is the first of its kind

Bethany Halford

Sorting through the scientific literature on the environmental and health impacts of nanomaterials can be downright confusing. Because nanoscience cuts across many disciplines, a report on the toxicity of fullerenes, for example, is as likely to be published in a chemistry-heavy journal like Nano Letters as it is to be reported in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Data Mine Dupont's David B. Warheit and coworkers found that carbon nanotubes instilled into a rat's trachea agglomerated (black areas) and blocked the major airways, as seen in this light micrograph of the rat's lung tissue. The report is in the new database.

Now, anyone with an Internet connection can easily access this information with just a few keystrokes, thanks to a new database devoted to the environmental, health, and safety implications of nanomaterials. This catalog of scientific literature ( was launched in August by the International Council of Nanotechnology (ICON) with the goal of helping researchers and government agencies make informed decisions about the safety of nanomaterials.

Although ICON is the database’s current custodian, the project never would have seen the light of day if it weren’t for the combined efforts of the chemical industry, the Department of Energy, and scientists from Rice University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). “This is an excellent example of industry collaborating,” says Jack Solomon, chair of the Chemical Industry Vision 2020 Technology Partnership, an industry-led consortium of public and private-sector organizations from all areas of the chemical enterprise. “I’d like to see us do more of it.”

The project began three years ago when the National Nanotechnology Initiative—the program that coordinates nanotechnology-related efforts of more than 20 federal agencies—approached Vision 2020 about creating a road map for nanomaterials. The plan, which came out in 2003, outlines the R&D priorities needed to shepherd nanomaterials to 2020.

Nanoparticles, by virtue of their extremely small size, exhibit properties that aren’t observed in the bulk form of the same material. But those exciting new properties come with new risks. Researchers worry that the tiny particles could damage cells and disrupt biological processes or slip undetected into the environment and wreak havoc on ecosystems. In creating the nanomaterials road map, Solomon says it became clear that determining the environmental, health, and safety impact of nanomaterials was a top priority.

Like any research scientist embarking on a new project, the Vision 2020 group decided that before they could determine what they needed to do to assess nanoparticle safety, they first needed to find out what had already been done. “An informed decision about how to ensure the safety of nanomaterials requires a comprehensive review of where we are and where we’ve been with prior research,” Solomon notes.

Emory A. Ford, a member of the Vision 2020 steering committee, proposed that the group develop a database of published research on the topic. He recalls that he faced a sort of “chicken and egg problem.” Everyone agreed that such a database would be an indispensable resource, but no one was eager to put it together.

Since the database was his idea, Ford decided to get the project off the ground. He secured funding from DOE and, in line with Vision 2020’s philosophy of collaboration, he recruited scientists from ORNL to gather the data.

Of course, no one ever said that building a database from scratch was going to be easy. “Originally, I don’t think they envisioned how much data was out there,” says Tim Borges, a toxicologist at ORNL. Borges and his colleague LeeAnn Wilson started gathering literature by doing keyword searches on terms like “nanotube” and “nanoparticle.” At the end of their search, Borges and Wilson had accumulated more than 22,000 research papers.

Most of the 22,000 articles were completely unrelated to environmental, health, and safety issues. So Borges undertook the herculean task of going through the reports one by one to see if they were relevant. Within six months, he had whittled the number down to 1,300 papers and had built a rudimentary database.

According to David DePaoli, who supervised the database project at ORNL, it was around this time that Vision 2020 decided to hand the database off to researchers at ICON, an affiliate of Rice University’s Center for Biological & Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN). “We aren’t really nanoparticle environmental, health, and safety experts,” Solomon adds. “We were very happy to have Rice take the database over.”

Kevin D. Ausman, CBEN’s executive director of operations, says the Rice group transformed the database into an evolving document that would be as useful for the general public as it is for scientists. They made it available free of charge on the Internet and added features that enable visitors to tailor their searches to “nanoparticle type” and “production method.” “The way we’ve set up the database right now, there’s also a submission form, so that scientists can correct any errors in database entries or submit citations that may have been missed,” Ausman adds.

“Anyone wishing to investigate the current state of knowledge regarding the health and environmental implications of nanomaterials will be able to do so on this website,” says Kristin Kulinowski, ICON’s executive director.

Within the next few months, ICON plans to put a more public face on the database. According to Ausman, ICON hopes to compile summaries written for the general public about the database’s most influential papers. Review articles—for example, on the environmental, health, and safety impact of cadmium selenide quantum dots or on the pulmonary toxicology of engineered nanoparticles—also are forthcoming, he says.

In addition to providing information for researchers and the public, Ausman thinks the database will be instrumental in establishing safe exposure levels and standards of care for nanomaterials. “To do that, you’ve got to have a good understanding of the literature base you’re working from,” he explains. “That’s the first contribution that this database is likely to make in the industry.”

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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