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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Nanoparticles: a case study of the importance of chemical policy reform

Posted on November 4, 2010

By Steven G. Gilbert, PhD DABT

This essay is in response to: What emerging environmental hazard should be next on the policy agenda?

Fullerene Nano-gears - NASA Ames Research Center

Chemical policy reform has been and remains the most important policy priority. We cannot continue the unsustainable practice of regulating or banning one chemical at a time. Reform of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act is essential for establishing a more rational approach to managing the introduction of new chemicals or classes of chemicals into commerce and subsequent human and environmental exposure. 

The need for chemical policy reform is exemplified by the emerging use of nanoparticles in consumer products that result in environmental and human exposure. The National Nanotechnology Initiative defines nanotechnology as “the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications.”[i]  Most important is that the very small size of these particles changes the physical and chemical properties of the material. For example, nanoscale titanium-dioxide found in sunscreen is invisible when rubbed on your nose, unlike standard titanium which is white. This occurs because the small particle size changes the interaction with visible light. Another important characteristic of nano-sized particles is the vastly increased surface area, which is important because it increase the interaction with light or other chemicals. These particles can also be coated with other chemicals to reduce clumping of the material or add special properties. For example, additional chemicals may be added to sunscreens to increase absorption of ultraviolet light. Nanomaterials come in a variety of flavors such as metals (e.g. silver, nickel, iron), oxides (e.g. titanium and zinc), carbon-based (e.g. nanotubes, fullerenes), quantum dots, and macromolecules, all with their own unique properties and uses. Nanotubes have many uses including filtration systems, encasing medicines for drug delivery, or constructing ultra-strong and -light material such as tennis rackets or golf clubs.  

Nanoscale materials are now used in thousands of products including electronics and computers, food, cosmetics, construction materials, automotive products, airplanes, medical products, home furnishings, and many others.[ii] Sunscreens commonly use nanoscale zinc and titanium dioxide, which is transparent, to enhance the product effectiveness and usability. Silver nanoparticles that have antimicrobial (kill bacteria) properties are available in socks, shirts, and paints. Even our washing machines can incorporate silver nanoparticles to momentarily stamp out bacteria. Nanomaterials are used in wide range of everyday consumer products. It is estimated that over $12 billion was spent on nanotechnology research and development in 2006 and that by 2014 nanotechnology will be used in $2.6 trillion of manufactured goods worldwide. Some believe that nanomaterials will usher in the next big economic boom. But how much do we know about the potential human health and environmental hazards?

When we wash our nanoenhanced sunscreen off our arms, legs, and face, where does it go? Were any of the any of the nanoscale particles absorbed through the skin? Is baby skin or skin on different parts of our bodies more likely to absorb nanoscale material? What happens when we wash our socks and the nanomaterial finds its way to the sewage treatment plant? What happens if we ingest or inhale nanoscale materials? There are also the chemical coatings added to the nanomaterial to consider. There are many questions about potential routes of exposure to nanoparticles for workers, consumers, and environmental organisms as well concerns about potential hazards.

There is data to indicate that carbon-based nanotubes can be hazardous when inhaled, perhaps similar to the cancer-causing effects of asbestos. This is particularly relevant to workers doing manufacturing processing using nanotubes that create dust. Silver nanoparticles were recently reported to affect sperm growth and these particles leach out of clothing when it is washed or exposed to artificial sweat in laboratory studies. Plastic nanoparticles can cross the human placenta, exposing the developing fetus and potentially interfering with development. There are also environmental concerns that fullerene nanoparticles are filtered out of water by oysters and taken up by their liver cells, affecting their reproduction. While there are a number of studies that suggest possible hazards associated with nanoscale materials, there has not been a systematic investigation by either the producers or government laboratories into actual exposures and health effects. 

Several books have postulated that self-replicating nanobots could disassemble the world, leaving only a gray goo behind. (Poster widely distributed on web.)

As nanoscale material moved into commercial use, governments had an opportunity to designate nanoscale materials as new chemical entities, which would have triggered more toxicity testing -- but this path was not taken.[iii] There is clearly a need for a more precautionary approach to the introduction of nanoscale materials and particles into consumer products and widespread human and environmental exposure. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) takes a very precautionary approach by requiring the drug manufacturer to demonstrate efficacy and safety of a new drug before marketing and sale to the public. Because of their many uses, the regulation of nanoscale materials falls under the regulatory purview of the FDA as well as the Toxic Substances Control Act, the statute that regulates most of the chemicals in commerce. The manufacturers of nanoscale materials, those that are making money from these products, should assume the burden of responsibility to demonstrate safety of their product. I believe they need to be mandated to do so through an updated chemicals management policy.

We have been down this path before with asbestos, PCBs, DDT, PBDEs, lead, as well as others of putting some material out into the environment only to deeply regret the human and environmental costs. Chemical policy reform is necessary to ensure an environment in which all living species can reach and maintain their full potential undamaged by exposure to hazardous material. We know what to do -- invest in health related research, require appropriate controls and labeling -- but do we have the will to take the appropriate precautionary actions with the goal of preventing harm to human health or the environment? 



[i] The National Nanotechnology Initiative: U.S. program established in 2001 to coordinate Federal nanotechnology research and development

[ii] Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies: An inventory of nanotechnology-based consumer products currently on the market.


M. Clarke said ..

Nanotech is being found coming out of the skin of humans with Morgellons disease- folding hexagonal packages, fullerenes, quantum dots. This was reported to the CDC in 2004, and due to patient political pressure, the CDC agreed to a study in 2006. The study was completed in 2009, however the results were never released to the public; the CDC instead sent the study to the Army. Doctors are continuing to tell Morgellons patients they are crazy- as they have done with cronic fatique and Lyme disease, however civil society groups have been doing their own research. The fibers being found from the skin have been identified as polyethlene - similar to fiber optics. It appears that in promoting the development of nanotech via the National Nanotech Initiative and funding research and use in consumer and industrial applications- with no required human or environmental health testing- the government is actively trying to contain and deny any possibility of a link to human disease.

August 26, 2011
Trula Thompson MD, MPH said ..

As an alum of UCLA School of Public Health, I receive their PH magazine. IN the November 2010 issue, an article titled, "Nanoparticles in Common Household Items Cause Genetic Damage in Mice". It reads: "Titanium dioxide nanoparticles, found in everything from cosmetics to sunscreen to pain and vitamins, cause system genetic damage to mice, according to a comprehensive study conducted by researchers at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and School of Public Health. The TiO2 nonoparticles induced single- and double-stranded DNA breaks and also caused chromosomal damage as well as inflammation, all of which increase the risk for cancer. The study, published in the journal of Cancer Research, was the first to show that the nanoparticles had such an effect, according to Dr. robert Schiesti, a Jonsson Cancer scientist and professor in the School of Public Health, who was the study's author. Once in the system, the TiO2 nanoparticles accumulate in different organs because the body has no way to eliminate them. And because they are so small, they can go everywhere in the body, even through cells, and may interfere with sub-cellular mechanisms, Schiesti says. They wander throughout the body casuing oxidative stress, which can lead to cell death. It is a novel mechanism of toxicity, a physiochemical reaction, that these particles cause, in comparison to regular chemical toxins, which are the usual sujbects of toxicological research. The novel principle is that titamium by itself is chemically inert.....however, when teh aprticles become progressivesly smaller, their surface in turn becomes progressively bigger, and in the interaction of this surface with the environment, oxidative stress is induced. ........ "It could be that a certain portion of spontaneous cancers are due to the exposure", Schiesti says. What I find to be mind-boggling and basically discordant in general with this aspect of 'science', is that it is a basic principle of biology that structure determines function...and that cell membrane 'normal' barriers are based on the size and charge of ions and molecules. And yet, 'we' are forging ahead with the infusion of these non-natural, tiny, bioactive suggests that no basic thought went into the biological consequences before yet another chemical/technical industry was birthed. I applaud Dr. Schiesti's work, and hope that the conversation about this topic will gain momentum and result in change before all of the biological world becomes irreversibly infused with these particles.

December 28, 2010
Richard Weiskopf said ..

Thank you. This is very informative. A lot more education needs to be done on this issue.

November 7, 2010
Daniel Kerlinsky MD said ..

I saw a patient from a high-tech laboratory doing nanoparticle research that came down with sudden-onset dementia. His research also involved solvents and chronic exposure. The episode was triggered by a high-intensity bicycle trip - similar to reports of DDT and Dioxin mobilization from fat stores in the body once exercise reaches the fat-mobilization stage.

November 4, 2010

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