Nanoparticles – Good Guys Or Bad Guys?

Approximately 800 products are made with nanomaterials, ranging from stain resistant clothing, energy supplements, sunscreen, odour eating socks and many other cutting edge products, yet there has been no research done whatsoever on the possible health or environmental dangers posed by nanoparticles.

It is not so much that as a consumer you have no idea if nano particles are in the products you imbibe or slap on your skin, but that on a nano level ordinary substances behave in extraordinary ways, and nobody, including the nano scientists, have a clue what nanoparticles do inside the body or to the environment.

There is no regulation of nano technology at all, so there is no way of knowing what products contain or which companies use nanoparticles, or how much is consumed or released into the environment or in our food chain.

What are nanomaterials?

Nanomaterials are not new – some exist naturally, others as a result of combustion such as diesel exhaust. What is new is the ability to manufacture and manipulate these tiny particles.

Carbon nanotubes which are made from rolling up sheets of carbon one atom thick, are used in tennis racquets and bicycles.

Generally the term ‘nano’ covers materials with a thickness between one and 100 nanometres (or billionth of a metre), about 50,000 times as thin as a human hair.

Upsides of nanomaterials

Possible applications include medical potentials, solar panels and energy efficient materials, clothing, cosmetics, drugs, medicines and lots other of applications not thought of as yet.

Downsides of nanomaterials

Like asbestos which was seen as a miracle material, or genetically modified food, nanoparticles may create more problems than they solve. Studies on the downsides are either non existent or just touch the surface, with very little funding being allocated to that end.

Naturally with so many technologies now coming online, the funding needed to properly test new products tends to be miniscule compared to the funds available for research into developing the various commercial applications, and so like GE foods, many products will and have already, hit the market with no testing done whatsoever.

Of the $1.5 billion spent by the US Govt each year on nanotechnology, only 1% is allocated to studying the possible downsides

One study done in Britain, by the [UK] National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health showed that when the carbon tubes referred to above were injected into mice they caused the same kind of damage as asbestos.

In a more recent study it showed when mice inhaled these carbon fibres it caused exactly the same damage to the lungs as asbestos. These fibres pass through the blood/brain barrier and possibly create havoc there.

Based on evidence like this, the European Union’s occupational health and safety agency issued an expert report in March, citing nanoparticles as the number-one emerging risk to workers.

In the U.S., NIOSH has issued a guidance document urging employers to avoid exposing workers to nanomaterials–for example, by enclosing equipment and using ventilation to reduce dust and fumes. But NIOSH has no regulatory power; it can only suggest.

Summarised by Mark O’Brien for from an article entitled Nobody Knows What Nanoparticles Do — Yet They Are in Your Food, Cosmetics, and Toys by Carole Bass, July 11, 2009

For further reading, see also Tests on sunscreen nanoparticles and Effect on immune system 28/2/08 and Nano sunblock safety under scrutiny on the Australian ABC website.

See also Nanotech risk put on insurance agenda  and Nanotechnology ethics on the table

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