Nanotechnology Needs Research and Regulation
Nanotechnology is the process of manipulating matter at the molecular level – or nanoscale. Nanomaterials have at least one dimension that is 100 nanometers or less. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, approximately 1/100,000 of a human hair.
This new technology has been touted as the next revolution in many industries, with hundreds of nanoproducts already on the market including everything from sunscreen and stain resistant clothing, to food and food packaging, and agricultural products like pesticides. Many of the world’s biggest companies are exploring nanotechnology research and development.
However, in the rush to incorporate nanoparticles into products already being marketed to the public, comparatively little money has been devoted to researching the health and environmental consequences of nanotechnology.
Small Enough to Be Very Different
Nanoscale materials are very different than their larger counterparts, with distinct electronic, magnetic, chemical and mechanical properties. Nanoparticles have an increased surface area, which offers more space for interaction with other substances. This increased interaction with their surroundings means that substances at the nanoscale can be more reactive and have higher toxicity than they do at their normal size. Picture a coffee maker. If you fill it with whole coffee beans, you get a very weak cup of coffee. But if you grind the beans first, you will increase the surface area of the coffee and get a dark, strong cup of coffee.
Adding to the concern about increased toxicity, substances that are stable in larger forms (such as aluminum) can also become reactive or explosive in nanoparticle form, creating the potential for health effects that are not seen when the substance is in its larger form.
Because of their size nanoparticles have the potential to bypass the blood-brain barrier, (the membrane that controls the passage of substances from the blood into the central nervous system). They also have the potential to pass the placental barrier. One study found that nanoparticles can easily travel from nasal passageways to the brain, and another found that gold nanoparticles can move across the placenta from mother to fetus. Once in the bloodstream, nanomaterials can circulate throughout the body and be taken up by organs and tissues. Given the higher toxicity of these particles, it is disturbing that the length of time they remain in the organs and what dose may cause harmful effects are unknown.
What We Need to Do About It
Chemicals like PCBs and pesticides like DDT, which were once thought to be safe, were not truly understood until long after human health and environmental damage already occurred. To avoid similar disasters, the effects of nanomaterials should be adequately studied before they are allowed onto the market. An adequate level of study would at least match the amount of testing and safety data the federal government requires for new food additives.