Is nanotechnology safe? The lack of regulation and some studies that suggest health risks raise red flags.
What you can’t see may hurt you: Each of these products contains nanoparticles of titanium dioxide, a whitener with possible health risks.
Photo by Hannah Kincaid
“Nanotechnology” refers to the manipulation of matter on the scale of the nanometer — one-billionth of a meter, or 1/100,000 the width of a human hair. But is nanotechnology safe for humans and the environment?
The practice sounds futuristic, but scientists and product developers have actually been experimenting with nanotech since 1981. Modern manufacturers take a common compound, such as carbon, silver or titanium dioxide, and, from it, create ultrafine “nanoparticles.” This resulting nanomaterial can offer advantages — such as being strong, having an antimicrobial effect or producing a desired color — but it behaves in different and unpredictable ways compared with its unmanipulated parent compound. For example, one study of rats showed that nanoparticles of titanium dioxide produced 43 times more pulmonary inflammation than larger particles of the compound. Always looking for ways to edge out competitors, companies have shown little concern for this technology’s human-health and environmental-toxicity risks, which, notes the Center for Food Safety, scientists are just beginning to understand.
According to the ETC Group, a nonprofit that investigates the socioeconomic and ecological issues surrounding new technologies, nano-scale science is changing the face of health care and food production, and has profound social and environmental implications. From food additives to sunscreens, products that contain nanoparticles are popping up in many sectors. The pervasive particles are also contaminating waterways, and researchers at Plymouth University in England found that titanium dioxide nanoparticles cause oxygen starvation in fish, which in turn leads to poor muscle performance and neurological problems.
Europe and Canada have laws regulating nanotechnology, but the United States has issued only voluntary guidelines for manufacturers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed its final guidance on nanotech in June 2014. It recommends that companies consult with the FDA before taking products to market, and warns that nanotech products may require additional safety reviews on a case-by-case basis.
“It’s good that [the FDA] recognizes a need for careful review, but the agency should take a more active approach. Under these guidelines, companies will consult with the FDA, but the FDA will not review products for safety,” says Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety. “Guidances alone are not sufficient to account for the novel risks of nanotechnology. The FDA must issue mandatory regulations.”
According to the Center for Food Safety, nanoparticles in food or food packaging can gain access to the human body via ingestion, inhalation or skin penetration. Nanoparticles’ small size allows them to circulate through the body when ingested, reaching potentially sensitive target sites, such as bone marrow, lymph nodes, the spleen, the brain, the liver and the heart. After nanoparticles are in the body, some types may have the ability to translocate to various organs and the central nervous system. For example, silver and carbon nanoparticles show up in other parts of the body after inhalation exposure.
Products already on the market that contain nanotech-produced substances include personal care products, cosmetics, pesticides, food additives, food packaging, cutting boards, dental implants, eyeglasses, clothing and textiles, some types of insulation, paints, boat hulls, sports equipment, computer chips and other electronic devices, and automotive parts. More applications of nanotech appear on the horizon every day.
And what’s the revenue of all of these products? According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a collaboration between 20 U.S. government agencies and private-sector groups, it was about $251 billion across the global economy in 2009, and it’s estimated to grow to $2.4 trillion by 2015. In other words, nanotech’s slice of the pie — and any regulation that could potentially throw a wrench in those profits — is no small matter.
The FDA took from 2006 to 2014 to move from draft guidances to a final guidance on nanotech, so implementing mandatory regulations could take many more years. Meanwhile, companies will thrust a steady stream of new products that contain nanoparticles in front of consumers — and, based on current guidelines, none of those products will be labeled as such.
To find out whether a food or product in your shopping cart contains nanoparticles, go to the Consumer Products Inventory, or check out the free associated app, findNano.
Shelley Stonebrook is MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and taking care of our environment. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and Google+.