January 26, 2012
Urgent Inquiry Needed: Manufacture of Nanomaterials Is Ravaging Our Environment and Health
Engineers have warned us for decades but regulators didn't listen. Now urgent research is needed into the risks associated with the growing field of nanotechnology manufacture which is proving to be so deadly to our environment and health that any benefits may be easily outweighed by the risks to the environment and all life.
Nanotechnology deals with structures smaller than one micrometer (less than 1/30th the width of a human hair), and involves developing materials or devices within that size. To put the size of a nanometer in perspective, it is 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
Patricia Dolez of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, at the Ecole de technologie superieure, in Montreal and colleagues point out that skin is not an impervious membrane. This is the reason that protective clothing and gloves, in addition to respirators, are often an essential and common sight in the chemical industry. However, they wonder if standard protection against chemical risks is enough for workers who are handling nanomaterials. Yet the public is not equipped with any protective equipment against the diversity of nanomaterials now available all over the world.
According to the the U.S. National Science Foundation, the nanotechnology market could reach over $3 trillion by 2015. This, says Dolez, corresponds to about millions of workers involved in nano-related activities. She adds that it has already been shown that nanoparticles may affect biological activity through oxidative stress at the cellular and molecular levels, although these effects are yet to be manifest as health problems among workers.
The anticipated hazards associated with this incredibly diverse range of substances falling under the general and broad tag of "nanomaterials" remain largely unknown. And, some scientists have suggested that we are vigilant to emerging health problems associated with nanomaterials. The U.S. government recently updated its National Nanotechnology Initiative strategic plan to highlight the need for an assessment of nanomaterials toxicity before production begins.
The Environmental Working Group who previously analyzed 15 studies on nanoparticles on sunscreen said that no investigations have ever assessed absorption through damaged skin. Such data is missing “for nearly all of the 17 sunscreen chemicals approved for use in the U.S. ”
Philip Moos and colleagues note that there is ongoing concern about the potential toxicity of nanoparticles of various materials, which may have different physical and chemical properties than larger particles. Barely 1/50,000 the width of a human hair, nanoparticles are used in foods, cosmetics and other consumer products. Some sunscreens contain nanoparticles of zinc oxide. The scientists note that a concern is children accidentally ingesting nano-sized zinc oxide.
Their experiments with cell cultures of colon cells compared the effects of zinc oxide nanoparticles to zinc oxide sold as a conventional powder. They found that the nanoparticles were twice as toxic to the cells as the larger particles.
Titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles, found in everything from cosmetics to sunscreen to paint to vitamins, have already been found to cause systemic genetic damage in mice, according to earlier comprehensive studies conducted by researchers at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.
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.
The TiO2 nanoparticles induced single- and double-strand DNA breaks and also caused chromosomal damage as well as inflammation, all of which increase the risk for cancer.
The use of aerial vaccines and nano delivery systems are now being utilized and fully implemented by governments with little regard or consequence to human health.
Despite extensive investment in nanotechnology and increasing commercialization over the last decade, insufficient understanding remains about the environmental, health, and safety aspects of nanomaterials.
Without a coordinated research plan to help guide efforts to manage and avoid potential risks, the future of safe and sustainable nanotechnology is uncertain, says a new report from the National Research Council. The report presents a strategic approach for developing research and a scientific infrastructure needed to address potential health and environmental risks of nanomaterials.
The committee that wrote the report found that there has not been sufficient linkage between research and research findings and the creation of strategies to prevent and manage any risks. For instance, little progress has been made on the effects of ingested nanomaterials on human health and other potential health and environmental effects of complex nanomaterials that are expected to enter the market over the next decade.
What’s new about nanoparticles, as far as risk is concerned, is that many of them are chemically inert as ordinary ions or as larger particles (and hence never had to go through regulatory approval before the nanoparticles were used); but as soon as the particle size reaches nanometre dimensions, they acquire novel physicochemical properties, causing oxidative stress and breaking DNA, and they can get access to every part of the body including the brain, via inhalation and the olfactory nerve.
Diseases associated with inhaled nanoparticles include asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Nanoparticles in the gastrointestinal tract have been linked to Crohn’s disease and colon cancer. Nanoparticles that enter the circulatory system are implicated in arteriosclerosis, blood clots, arrhythmia, heart diseases, and ultimately death from heart disease. Nanoparticles entering other organs, such as liver, spleen, etc. , may lead to diseases of these organs. Some nanoparticles are associated with autoimmune diseases, such as systemic lupus erythematosus, scleroderma, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Therefore, there is the need for a research strategy that is independent of any one stakeholder group, has human and environmental health as its primary focus, builds on past efforts, and is flexible in anticipating and adjusting to emerging challenges, the committee said.
Because the number of products containing nanoscale materials is expected to explode, and future exposure scenarios may not resemble those of today, selecting target materials to study on the basis of existing market size -- as is the practice now -- is problematic.
If modest resources are not appropriately allocated from public, private, and international initiatives in critical areas such as informatics, nanomaterial characterization, benchmarking nanomaterials, characterization of sources, and development of networks for supporting collaborative research, there may be a full blown environmental and health threat facing the entire planet.
Marco Torres is a research specialist, writer and consumer advocate for healthy lifestyles. He holds degrees in Public Health and Environmental Science and is a professional speaker on topics such as disease prevention, environmental toxins and health policy.