Uncertainty over safety of nanotechnology in consumer products

The New York Times brings an article by Natasha Singer that sums up the ambiguous status of nanotech in consumer products, particularly cosmetic and personal care products, and the also ambiguous attitudes about nanotechnology. It is not clear that there is any real danger from the nanotech products currently in use, but neither is there convincing proof that all are safe. Each nanomaterial and each nanotech product needs to be judged individually, but it is worrisome, although not unexpected, that thorough research night sometimes be trumped by commercial convenience. It seems crucial for the development of nanotechnology as a component of commercial enterprises that ambiguity be replaced by clear standards arising from sufficient research. From “New Products Bring Side Effect: Nanophobia“:

IT sounds like a plot straight out of a science-fiction novel by Michael Crichton. Toiletry companies formulate new cutting-edge creams and lotions that contain tiny components designed to work more effectively. But those minuscule building blocks have an unexpected drawback: the ability to penetrate the skin, swarm through the body and overwhelm organs like the liver.

Humans have long lived in dread of such nightmare scenarios in which swarms of creatures attack. Alfred Hitchcock envisioned menacing flocks in “The Birds.” In the 1990 film “Arachnophobia” a killer spider arrives in the United States, where it attacks and multiplies.

And now comes nanophobia, the fear that tiny components engineered on the nanoscale — that is, 100 nanometers or less — could run amok inside the body. A human hair, for example, is 50,000 to 100,000 nanometers in diameter. A nanoparticle of titanium dioxide in a sunscreen could be as small as 15 nanometers. (One nanometer equals a billionth of a meter.)

“The smaller a particle, the further it can travel through tissue, along airways or in blood vessels,” said Dr. Adnan Nasir, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Especially if the nanoparticles are indestructible and accumulate and are not metabolized, if you accumulate them in the organs, the organs could fail.”

Indeed, some doctors, scientists and consumer advocates are concerned that many industries are adopting nanotechnology ahead of studies that would establish whether regular ingestion, inhalation or dermal penetration of these particles constitute a health or environmental hazard. Personal care products are simply the lowest hanging fruit.


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