Tiny nanoparticles could be a big problem

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Nanotechnology was supposed to revolutionize the world, making us healthier and producing cleaner energy. But it’s starting to look more like a nightmare.

      Nanomaterials—tiny particles as little as 1/100,000 the width of a human hair—have quietly been used since the 1990s in hundreds of everyday products, everything from food to baby bottles, pills, beer cans, computer keyboards, skin creams, shampoo, and clothes.

      But after years of virtually unregulated use, scientists are now starting to say the most commonly used nanoproducts could be harming our health and the environment.

      One of the most widespread nanoproducts is titanium dioxide. More than 5,000 tonnes of it are produced worldwide each year for use in food, toothpaste, cosmetics, paint, and paper (as a colouring agent), in medication and vitamin capsules (as a nonmedicinal filler), and in most sunscreens (for its anti-UV properties).

      In food, titanium-dioxide nanoparticles are used as a whitener and brightener in confectionary products, cheeses, and sauces. Other nanoparticles are employed in flavourings and “nutritional” additives, and to reduce fat content in “health” foods.

      In the journal Cancer Research in 2009, environmental-health professor Robert Schiestl coauthored the first comprehensive study of how titanium-dioxide nanoparticles affect the genes of live animals. Mice in his study suffered DNA and chromosomal damage after drinking water with the nanoparticles for five days.

      “It should be removed from food and drugs, and there’s definitely no reason for it in cosmetic products,” said cancer specialist Schiestl, who is also a professor of pathology and radiation oncology at UCLA’s school of medicine.

      “The study shows effects [from the nanoparticles] on all kinds of genetic endpoints,” Schiestl told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from his office. “All those are precursor effects of cancer. It’s a wake-up call to do something.”

      After Schiestl’s study came out, he said, he started getting calls from nervous people saying they had discovered titanium dioxide was listed as a nonmedicinal ingredient in their prescription medication. “They wanted to know how to get it out,” he said. “I said, ”˜I don’t know how to get it out.’ ”

      Schiestl’s study is cited by groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in their calls for a moratorium on nanomaterials in food and consumer products.

      “They were thought to be safe. Our study shows a lot of harm,” Schiestl said.

      Nanoparticles can be harmful because they are so tiny they can pass deep into the skin, lungs, and blood. They are made by burning or crushing regular substances like titanium, silver, or iron until they turn into an ultrafine dust, which is used as a coating on, or ingredient in, various products.

      Schiestl is now studying two other common nanoparticles, zinc oxide and cadmium oxide, and he has found they also cause DNA and chromosomal damage in mice.

      Yet two years after Schiestl’s first study, titanium dioxide and other nanoparticles remain virtually unregulated in Canada and the U.S. Products containing nanoparticles still don’t have to be labelled, and manufacturers don’t have to prove they are safe for health or the environment.

      In fact, only a small fraction of the hundreds of nanomaterials on the market have been studied to see if they are safe.

      “The public has had little or no say on this. It’s mostly industry guiding government to make sure this material isn’t regulated,” said Ian Illuminato, a nanotech expert with Friends of the Earth, speaking from his home office in Victoria.

      “Consumers aren’t given the right to avoid this. We think it’s dangerous and shouldn’t be in contact with the public and the environment,” he said.

      Meanwhile, the number of products using nanomaterials worldwide has shot up sixfold in just a couple of years, from 212 in 2006 to more than 1,300 in 2011, according to a report in March by the Washington, D.C.–based Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

      Those numbers are based on self-reporting by industry, and the real numbers are thought to be much higher. A Canadian government survey in 2009 found 1,600 nanoproducts available here, according to a report in December from the ETC Group, an Ottawa-based nonprofit that studies technology.

      Nanotech is worth big money. More than $250 billion of nano-enabled products were produced globally in 2009, according to Lux Research, a Boston-based technology consultancy. That figure is expected to rise 10-fold, to $2.5 trillion, by 2015.

      Lux Research estimated in 2006 that one-sixth of manufactured output would be based on nanotechnology by 2014.

      Nanotech already appears to be affecting people’s health. In 2009, two Chinese factory workers died and another five were seriously injured in a plant that made paint containing nanoparticles.

      The seven young female workers developed lung disease and rashes on their face and arms. Nanoparticles were found deep in the workers’ lungs.

      “These cases arouse concern that long-term exposure to some nanoparticles without protective measures may be related to serious damage to human lungs,” wrote Chinese medical researchers in a 2009 study on the incident in the European Respiratory Journal.

      When inhaled, some types of nanoparticles have been shown to act like asbestos, inflaming lung tissue and leading to cancer. In 2009, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Cancer Research declared titanium dioxide to be “possibly carcinogenic to humans” after studies found that inhaling it in nanoparticle form caused rats to develop lung cancer and mice to suffer organ damage.

      Nanoparticles can also hurt the skin. All those nanoparticles in skin creams and sunscreens may be behind a rise in eczema rates in the developed world, according to a 2009 study in the journal Experimental Biology and Medicine. The study found that titanium-dioxide nanoparticles caused mice to develop eczema. The nanoparticles “can play a significant role in the initiation and/or progression of skin diseases”, the study said.

      Schiestl said nanoparticles could also be helping to fuel a rise in the rates of some cancers. He wouldn’t make a link with any specific kind of cancer, but data from the U.S. National Cancer Institute show that kidney and renal-pelvis cancer rates rose 24 percent between 2000 and 2007 in the U.S., while the rates for melanoma of the skin went up 29 percent and thyroid cancer rose 54 percent.

      Schiestl said workers who deal with nanoparticles could be the most affected. That concern prompted the International Union of Food, Farm, and Hotel Workers to call in 2007 for a moratorium on commercial uses of nanotechnology in food and agriculture.

      But despite all the health risks, we may already have run out of time to determine many of nanotech’s health impacts, Schiestl said.

      “Nanomaterial is so ubiquitous that it would be very difficult to do an epidemiological study because there would be no control group of people who don’t use it.”

      What happens when nanoparticles get out into the environment in wastewater or when products are thrown out?

      Nanosilver is the most common nanomaterial on the market. Its extraordinary antimicrobial properties have earned it a place in a huge variety of products, including baby pacifiers, toothpaste, condoms, clothes, and cutting boards.

      Virginia Walker, a biology professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, decided to study nanosilver one day after a grad student said her mother had bought a new washing machine that doused clothes with silver nanoparticles to clean them better.

      It sounded intriguing, Walker recalled thinking, but what would happen if nanosilver in the laundry water wound up in the environment? “What would it do to the bacterial communities out there?” she wondered.

      On a whim, Walker decided to study the question. She figured the nanosilver would probably have no impact on beneficial microbes in the environment because any toxicity would be diluted.

      “I did the experiment almost as a lark, not expecting to find anything,” she said by phone. “I hoped I would not find anything.”

      In fact, Walker found that nanosilver was “highly toxic” to soil bacteria. It was especially toxic to one kind of nitrogen-fixing bacterium that is important to plant growth.

      “If you had anything that was sensitive to nanoparticles, the last thing you would want is to have this microbe affected,” Walker said in a phone interview from her office.

      The study prompted Walker to do more studies on nanoparticles. In one study now being reviewed for publication, one of her students found that mice exposed to nanoparticles developed skeletal abnormalities.

      “People should have their eyes open. There are so many different nanoparticles, and the consequences of their use could be grave. We know almost nothing about these things,” Walker said.

      Other scientists have raised concerns about nanosilver too. Some clothes makers now put it in socks and shirts, promising it will help control body odour. In a 2008 study in the Washington, D.C.–based journal Environmental Science and Technology, researchers took nanosilver-laced socks and washed them in water. They found the socks released up to half of their nanosilver into the water.

      “If you start releasing ionic silver, it is detrimental to all aquatic biota. Once the silver ions get into the gills of fish, it’s a pretty efficient killer,” said study coauthor Troy Benn, a graduate student at Arizona State University, in a ScienceDaily.com story in 2008.

      “I’ve spoken with a lot of people who don’t necessarily know what nanotechnology is, but they are out there buying products with nanoparticles in them.”

      And what about the promise that nanotech could produce cleaner energy? The idea was that nanoparticles could make solar panels more efficient, be used as fuel additives to improve gas mileage, and make lighter cars and planes.

      Most of the promised efficiency gains haven’t materialized, according to a 2010 report from Friends of the Earth. And it turns out that making nanomaterial is itself a huge energy guzzler.

      A kilogram of carbon nanotubes—a nanoparticle used in cancer treatment and to strengthen sports equipment—requires an estimated 167 barrels of oil to produce, the Friends of the Earth report said.

      Carbon nanotubes are “one of the most energy intensive materials known to humankind”, said a 2010 report to a symposium of the U.S.–based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

      That report said many nanoproducts may remain profitable despite their high energy cost only because of enormous government subsidies to the nanotech industry—$1.6 billion from the U.S. government last year.

      But despite all this, regulation of nanotech remains glacially slow. The European Parliament voted nearly unanimously to recommend that nanoproducts be banned from food in 2009. But the European Commission rejected that recommendation last year, agreeing only that it may require labels on food containing nanomaterials. It will also require labels on cosmetics containing some nanoingredients starting in 2014.

      Canada and the U.S. have yet to go even that far. At Health Canada, which regulates nanotechnology, a web page dealing with nanoproducts hasn’t been amended in four years and contains outdated information.

      Health Canada spokesman Stéphane Shank did not return calls.

      They used to say small is beautiful. But that was before small got scary.

      To find out if a product contains nanoparticles, search the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. Also check the Environmental Working Group’s survey of sunscreens and other products.




      Jul 21, 2011 at 9:14am

      Nano particles in Toothpaste, Sunscreen & Food Products is INSANE.

      ANYTHING that gets into a living cell that is MAN MADE will KILL or DAMAGE the DNA leading to CANCER & DEATH.

      The same it's Safe Denials just like Tobacco & Food with Chemicals are being made today with Nano laced Consumer Products.

      There is NO SAFE levels, it increases in the Environment everyday, Ground Water IS and WILL be infested with Nano man made pollution particles.

      Enjoy :)


      Jul 21, 2011 at 9:24am

      Welcome to Nano Death from your Toothpaste [you do use toothpaste right?] & your Anti Bacterial Socks & Clothes...



      The researchers from Lausanne University, Orléans University and the French National Centre for Scientific Research in France investigated the inflammatory capacity of TiO2 nanoparticles by testing them on human cells and in lab experiments using mice.

      They found that TiO2 nanoparticles cause similar effects to asbestos and silicone, activating the inflammasome NLRP3 – a complex mechanism responsible for activating inflammation processes – and releasing molecules capable of attacking DNA, proteins and cell membranes.

      “With titanium dioxide you accumulate, like asbestos, particles in the lung. You get chronic inflammation and this can last ten or 15 years and the next step is cancer,” Jí¼rg Tschopp, the lead researcher and professor of biochemistry at Lausanne University, told swissinfo.ch.

      Tschopp, who was awarded the 2008 Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine for his pioneering work in the fields of cell death and inflammation, said he was concerned that nanoparticles could become “the asbestos of the future”.

      Nano Asbestos

      Jul 21, 2011 at 9:34am

      Nano particles in food & consumer products is just like Asbestos, it will kill you in 10-15 years with Cancer resulting in a horrible & painfully drawn out DEATH!!!

      John Turner

      Jul 21, 2011 at 12:02pm

      I wonder what damage the cadmium and aluminum nanoparticles used in Stratospheric Aerosol Geoengineering are capable of?

      Curt DeMille

      Jul 21, 2011 at 12:26pm

      One of the reasons that this sort of article is not given much notice by the public is that it contains broad generalizations inferring that the reported effect is wide spread. Another reason is that the public is assaulted by alarmist claims about virtually every topic. Perhaps if researchers spent more time to 1) get the facts right and 2) to carefully narrow their study conclusions without generalizing and over-reaching to speculative adverse effects, we would have an informed public which appreciated validated work rather than minimizing it as just another piece of 'noise'.
      Accurate information about the titanium dioxide (TiO2) market and end use is easily found and validated. It shows that TiO2 has been safely manufactured and used for 90+ years and is the principle colourant (pigment) associated with all things white. It is on the walls of virtually every home and industrial property world wide. Equally easy to find and validate is the fact that nano size TiO2 is NOT a colouring agent as it will not impart a colour to products. Therefore, it is not used in foods or toothpaste as reported here. It is primarily used as an industrial catalyst and in pollution control applications.
      Studies about skin contact to TiO2 and nano size TiO2 have been conducted by Australia, US and European orgnaizations. Each and every one clinically demonstrate that TiO2 does not penetrate the skin, contrary to the generalized conclusions reported in alarmist articles such as this.
      News articles and research studies cited in this article reporting factually incorrect information have the effect of discrediting the sources. More attention should be paid to reporting the facts rather than promoting public hysteria.


      Jul 21, 2011 at 3:42pm

      Ah, fear mongering at its finest.

      Yes, let's all fear things that are "nano". Meanwhile, things on the micron scale can also be dangerous (eg. silica dust). Some things on the nanoscale are dangerous (asbestos), but no need for this gross hysteria over everything. There are more dangerous particles in the air, from pollution and dust, that will destroy your lungs far quicker than something like titania is ever going to hurt you when in dispersion.


      Ray I

      Jul 21, 2011 at 5:48pm

      Typical Georgia Straight "scientific" article. Stick to reviewing food, movies and live gigs.

      Shithead Specialist

      Jul 21, 2011 at 6:22pm

      @Curt DeMille...

      TI02 has been used for a long time but NOT NANO TI02 which is a more recent [Nano] technology.


      NANO TI02 is USED in both FOOD & TOOTHPASTE !!!

      [your statement that it is not used in toothpaste is FALSE and/or MISINFORMED like you].



      UCLA molecular biologist Bénédicte Trouiller found that nano-titanium dioxide — the nanomaterial most commonly used in consumer products today — can damage or destroy DNA and chromosomes at degrees that can be linked to “all the big killers of man,” a colleague says.

      Nano-titanium dioxide is so pervasive that the Environmental Working Group says it has calculated that close to 10,000 over-the-counter products use it in one form or another. Other public health specialists put the number even higher.

      It’s “in everything from medicine capsules and nutritional supplements, to food icing and additives, to skin creams, oils and toothpaste,” Schiestl says. He adds that at least 2 million pounds of nanosized titanium dioxide are produced and used in the U.S. each year.

      Finally your assurance of Nano particles safety sounds much like the Tobacco Industry & the Neo-Con Government backing of Asbestos as "safe", it is both disturbing and laughable in it's "trust me it's safe" statement. In other words BOGUS.


      Jul 21, 2011 at 6:47pm

      "Over the last decade safety concerns have arisen about the use of metal-based nanoparticles in the cosmetics field. Metal-based nanoparticles have been linked to both environmental and animal toxicity in a variety of studies. Perhaps the greatest concern involves the large amounts of TiO<sub>2</sub> nanoparticles that are used in commercial sunscreens. As an alternative to using these potentially hazardous metal-based nanoparticles, we have isolated organic nanoparticles from English ivy (Hedera helix). In this study, ivy nanoparticles were evaluated for their potential use in sunscreens based on four criteria: 1) ability to absorb and scatter ultraviolet light, 2) toxicity to mammalian cells, 3) biodegradability, and 4) potential for diffusion through skin. Results: Purified ivy nanoparticles were first tested for their UV protective effects using a standard spectrophotometric assay. Next the cell toxicity of the ivy nanoparticles was compared to TiO<sub>2</sub> nanoparticles using HeLa cells. The biodegradability of these nanoparticles was also determined through several digestion techniques. Finally, a mathematical model was developed to determine the potential for ivy nanoparticles to penetrate through human skin. The results indicated that the ivy nanoparticles were more efficient in blocking UV light, less toxic to mammalian cells, easily biodegradable, and had a limited potential to penetrate through human skin. When compared to TiO2 nanoparticles, the ivy nanoparticles showed decreased cell toxicity, and were easily degradable, indicating that they provided a safer alternative to these nanoparticles. Conclusions: With the data collected from this study, we have demonstrated the great potential of ivy nanoparticles as a sunscreen protective agent, and their increased safety over commonly used metal oxide nanoparticles." Abstract. Journal of Nanobiotechnology. 2010(8)

      Does anyone honestly believe that substances foreign to our organism will have no ill long-term effect on it?


      Jul 21, 2011 at 7:58pm

      Is it just the tiny nanoparticles we should worry about? Are the medium-sized and big ones OK? More info please!!