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Personal products you may use daily and
think are harmless - cosmetics, suntan lotion, socks, and sports
clothes - may all contain atom-sized nanotech particles, some of
which have been shown to sicken and kill workers in plants using
Known human health risks include severe
and permanent lung damage.
Cell studies indicate genetic DNA
damage. Extremely toxic to aquatic wildlife, nanoparticles pose
clear risks to many species and threaten the global food chain.
Nanotech particles have been embraced by industry as the wonder
ingredient in personal hygiene products, food packaging, paints,
medical procedures and pharmaceuticals, even tires and auto parts,
among burgeoning numbers of other consumer products. Cosmetic
companies add titanium dioxide nanoparticles to sun creams to make
them transparent on the skin. Sports clothing firms have introduced
odor-free garments containing
nanosilver particles that are twice
as toxic to bacteria than bleach.
Auto industry companies have added
carbon nanofibers to tires and body
panels to strengthen them.
According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN),
health and fitness items continue to dominate available nanotech
products, representing 60 percent of products listed. More products
are based on nanoscale silver - used for its antimicrobial
properties - than any other nanomaterial; 259 products (26 percent)
use silver nanoparticles.
PEN’s updated inventory represents
products from over twenty-four countries, including the US, China,
Canada, and Germany.
Yet, nanomaterials are so poorly understood that scientists are
unable to predict how they will behave and are unsure of how to
check their safety. Over one thousand consumer products made with
nanoparticles, which can be one hundred times smaller than a virus,
are already on the market, despite an almost complete lack of
knowledge of the dangers they pose to human health and the
And while these atomic-sized particles
may be beneficial in certain medical applications, scientists and
environmentalists are calling for more studies. Until now, few
adverse effects have been found for this virtually unregulated
Yet, that may simply be due to the
relatively few studies that have been done in the rush to find ever
more and profitable nanotech applications.
Nanotechnology, the science of the extremely tiny, is an
important emerging industry with a projected annual market of around
one trillion dollars by 2015. It involves manipulating or building
new materials from atoms and molecules; silver and carbon are now
the most important building blocks.
The nanomaterials are far smaller than a human hair and can only be
seen with powerful microscopes. A nanometer is a billionth of a
meter, while a human hair is about eighty thousand nanometers
wide. An atom is roughly one-third of a nanometer across, and
nanoparticles are groups of atoms that are typically smaller than
one hundred nanometers.
The tiny-sized materials often have
unique properties that differ from the properties of their larger
Nanoparticles lend their success to the
extraordinary, and sometimes highly unusual, properties they have.
For example, tennis rackets made with carbon nanotubes are
incredibly strong, while the larger pieces of graphite easily shear
apart. The medical industry is investing heavily in nanoparticles to
create precision drugs that can target specific tissues, such as
While some of these new materials may
have beneficial applications in medical procedures, wound dressings,
and pharmaceuticals, concerns are growing that they may have toxic
effects. In particular, nanoparticles have been linked to lung and
In a new British study, researchers discovered an unforeseen
process, dubbed “toxic gossip,” by which metal nanoparticles inflict
genetic damage to DNA, even through walls of tissue that were not
physically breached. Researchers called the finding “a huge
surprise,” particularly since the billionth-of-a-meter-scale
particles appear to have wreaked their havoc indirectly.
Now, for the first time, a scientific study has established a
clear and causal relationship between human contact with
nanoparticles and serious health damage.
According to an article published in the
European Respiratory Journal by a group of Chinese
researchers headed by Yuguo Song, from the Department of
Occupational Medicine and Clinical Toxicology at the Beijing Chaoyang Hospital, seven young female workers fell seriously ill
after working in a paint factory that used nanotechnology.
The workers suffered severe and
permanent lung damage, and face and arm eruptions. Two of them died,
while the other five have not improved after several years.
Around five hundred studies have shown nanotechnology toxicity in
animal studies, in human cells, and in the environment. Although
Song’s article finds evidence of clinical toxicity in human beings
for the first time, according to researcher Silvia Ribeiro,
this finding could be only the tip of the iceberg of an extremely
Nanoparticles behave unlike lumps of the same materials - stronger,
more toxic, and with radically different properties.
What makes them so useful also makes
their safety so uncertain. Immediate, further research into
nanoparticle toxicities and its dissemination is needed. Effects on
human health and the environment result from nanoparticles reaching
waterways through wastewater treatment and disposal sites, affecting
the organisms that live in the water and the people who drink and
cook with water.
Three types of nanoparticles are of particular concern:
Nanosilver is known to be highly toxic
to aquatic life.
While silver is safer for people than
other toxics such as lead and chromium, for aquatic organisms, the
story is quite different. Silver is more toxic to many fresh- and
salt-water organisms, ranging from phytoplankton (at the bottom of
the food chain) to marine invertebrates - such as oysters and snails
- to different types of fish, especially in their immature stages.
Many species of fish and shellfish, as
well as their food, are susceptible; widespread exposure to silver
impacts and disrupts ecosystem health. Nanosilver is significantly
more toxic than lumps of silver because the tiny particles’ huge
surface area increases their ability to interact with the
environment. Nanosilver has been shown to break down and leach into
water systems when, for example, sports garments incorporating
silver nanoparticles for odor control are agitated in washing
In one study of silver nanoparticles
used as antimicrobials in fabrics, of seven nanoparticle fabrics
tested, four of them lost 20 percent to 35 percent of their silver
in the first wash, and one brand lost half of its silver content in
just two washings - all of which drained directly into the
environment. Many waterways are just recovering from high levels of
silver introduced by the photography industry during the twentieth
New silver nanoparticle products may
result in highly toxic levels of silver being reintroduced into
rivers and lakes through water treatment facilities.
Carbon nanofibers, which are added to tires and woven into clothing
to produce different colors without using dyes, are also likely to
be shed where they can be inhaled and cause lung damage. In a study
published in the Journal of Molecular Cell Biology, Chinese
researchers discovered that a class of nanoparticles being widely
developed in medicine - ployamidoamine dendrimers (PAMAMs)
- cause lung damage by triggering a type of programmed cell death
known as autophagic cell death.
And finally, carbon-based “buckyballs”
have shown to be absorbed by simple organisms, raising concerns that
toxicities contaminate the food chain at the most damaging lower
Today, according to PEN, over one thousand nanotechnology-enabled
products have been made available to consumers around the world.
The most recent update to the group’s
three-and-a-half-year-old inventory reflects the increasing use of
the tiny particles in everything from conventional products like
non-stick cookware and lighter, stronger tennis racquets, to more
unique items such as wearable sensors that monitor posture.
“The use of nanotechnology in
consumer products continues to grow rapidly,” says PEN director
“When we launched the inventory in
March 2006 we only had 212 products. If the introduction of new
products continues at the present rate, the number of products
listed in the inventory will reach close to 1,600 within the
next two years.
This will provide significant
oversight challenges for agencies like the Food and Drug
Administration and Consumer Product Safety Commission, which
often lack any mechanisms to identify nanotech products before
they enter the marketplace.”
More information on nanotechnology
Nanotech products listing
Update by Paul Eubig and Wendy Hessler,
Environmental Health News
We found this story interesting because the research is an initial
step toward defining how much consumer products contribute to silver
nanoparticles in the environment.
Knowing the amount of a chemical
entering the environment is a necessary step in estimating the risk
the contaminant poses to the environment and to human health. On a
larger scale, this story also intrigued us because the questions it
raises reflect unanswered concerns about nanotechnology in general.
This story was not widely reported. Short write-ups appeared in the
New York Times and Chemical & Engineering News.
Environmental Health News
reported on an interesting follow-up in Particle and Fibre
Toxicology, which found that silver nanoparticles are released
from nanoparticle-treated fabrics when exposed to artificial human
So a picture is emerging of silver
nanoparticles exiting consumer products, exposing humans and
entering wastewater to a greater extent than may have been intended.
Meanwhile, in articles in Environmental Health Perspectives and
Small, other researchers have demonstrated the adverse effects of
silver nanoparticles on developing nerve cells and fish embryos,
The intent is not to target silver nanoparticles but rather bring
attention to a broader topic: the safety of nanotechnology. The
great potential of nanotechnology to revolutionize a broad array of
fields - including energy production and management, health care,
and manufacturing - is gradually being realized.
Yet, nanotechnology also provides great challenges in safety
assessment. The composition, size and structure of nanoparticles are
some of the numerous factors that influence how they act in the body
or in the environment.
Additionally, nanoparticles of a
particular type, such as silver, do not necessarily act as
individual molecules or atoms of the same substance, such as free,
Unfortunately, regulatory agencies have been slow to contend with
the rapid emergence of nanotechnology in the workplace and in the
home, as well as in the environment in a broader sense, resulting in
a dizzying catch-up game in which the applications of nanotechnology
continue to multiply while the regulatory playing field has still
not been established.
Current debate centers on whether
existing safety data is sufficient for nanoparticle-containing
products, or whether further assessment of the impacts on human and
environmental health needs to be performed.
The past century provides numerous examples of chemicals - lead,
and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) to name a few - that were
considered a great boom initially, but were later shown to have
adverse effects on human or environmental health that outweighed
Our reporting aspires to help society
remember the lessons of the past and to exercise caution as it
embraces the promise of the future.
O. Bar-Ilan et al., “Toxicity
Assessments of Multisized Gold and Silver Nanoparticles in
Zebrafish Embryos,” Small 5, no.16 (2009): 1897–1910
K. Kulthong et al.,
“Determination of Silver Nanoparticle Release From
Antibacterial Fabrics into Artificial Sweat,” Particle and
Fibre Toxicology 7, no. 1 (2010): 8
C. M. Powers et al., “Silver
Impairs Neurodevelopment: Studies in PC12 Cells,”
Environmental Health Perspectives 118, no. 1 (2009): 73–79
A. Halperin, “Nanosilver: Do We
Know the Risks?” New Haven Independent, March 17, 2010,
US Environmental Protection
Agency’s Fact Sheet for Nanotechnology Under the Toxic
Substances Control Act:
US Environmental Protection
Agency’s Nanotechnology White Paper, EPA 100/B-07/001
(February 15, 2007): http://www.epa.gov/OSA/nanotech.htm
US Food and Drug
Administration’s Nanotechnology Web site:
Researcher who studies the
environmental, health, and safety impacts of nanotechnology:
Stacey L. Harper, Oregon State University, 1007 ALS,
Corvallis Oregon 97331, (541) 737-2791, firstname.lastname@example.org