What's the 411 on Nanotechnology?
Saying No to Nano
A few months ago, I began to notice something odd: My mind felt foggy pretty much all the time, as if I'd been taking cold medication. I felt as if my brain had been wrapped in cotton, and it seemed to be getting progressively worse.
I had no idea what was causing it, but I searched my memory for anything I'd been doing differently, maybe something I'd been eating or drinking that I'd never used before. And I kept coming up empty.
Until one day, when I washed my hair and left the conditioner in longer than I usually did. It was a top-of-the-line product for which I'd paid quite a bit, and it contained peppermint and smelled wonderful. I realized my scalp was tingling when I got out of the shower. An hour later, after my hair had dried, my scalp was still tingling.
And it scared me. I went to the company's Web site, hoping for a clue, and what I found made me toss the bottle in the trash: Nano.
As in nanotechnology. As in nanoparticles. As in manipulating matter on the atomic and molecular level, then adding that manipulated material to a product and selling it to an unsuspecting (more on that later) public.
Nanotechnology takes its name from the nanometer (nm), which is a billionth of a meter, or about one one-hundred-thousandth the diameter of a human hair. A red blood cell, for comparison, is about 7,000 nanometers wide. Nanomaterials are those that are smaller than 100 nanometers, some as few as one or two nm. We're talking very, very small.
According to a recent report published by Friends of the Earth, which you can find at http://nano.foe.org.au/node/100, hundreds, even thousands, of consumer products incorporating nanomaterials are now on the market, everything from cosmetics and sunscreens to sporting goods and clothing to cell phones and computer chips to food and food packaging.
For this article, I'd like to focus mainly on those products we apply to our skin. When you think of your skin, you probably don't think of it as a filter, but that's one of its jobs; besides keeping everything inside you inside, your skin helps to keep the dangerous stuff out, particularly harmful bacteria.
But most nanoparticles are much smaller than bacteria, and many are even smaller than most deadly viruses. Here's the problem: When you apply a moisturizer, such as Nano-Gold Anti-Aging Organic Moisturizer (not that I'm picking on that company, but if they actually have the guts to put the word "nano" on their products, they're fair game), the nanoparticles may not simply remain on or within the layers of your skin. Many researchers, in fact, are concerned that the nanoparticles can actually penetrate the skin; at the very least, all agree that any area of "broken" skin, which includes even small blemishes or tiny cuts, will decidedly not keep out nanoparticles.
And worse, one of the greatest concerns of many scientists (at least, those whose studies aren't funded by the companies producing these materials) is that nanoparticles that enter the body, either through inhalation or ingestion or, in this case, the skin, can wind up in the bloodstream. Once there, they can be transported around the body and taken up by organs and tissues including the brain, heart, kidneys, bone marrow and nervous system, with many scientists having found that the majority of nanoparticles wind up in the liver and spleen. How long they're stay there and what damage they may do is the question.
Here's what researchers do know: Carbon nanotubes, which are cylinders made of carbon atoms, have been shown to cause the death of kidney cells. Other nanoparticles have been shown to be toxic to human tissue and cell cultures; for instance, the nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide used in cosmetics, sunscreens and other products are photoactive, which means they produce free radicals that cause DNA damage to human skin cells when exposed to ultraviolet light. Carbon fullerenes (named for Richard Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic dome they resemble to the point that they're sometimes called Buckyballs), another type of nanoparticle used in cosmetics, have been found to cause brain damage in largemouth bass, which are commonly used to test environmental toxins, and they've also been found to be toxic to human liver cells at low levels.
So who or what is looking out for our health? All together now: No one. Because of loopholes in our federal laws, companies are free to put whatever they want into cosmetics and other "personal care" products, and our own government doesn't require safety testing before the products hit the stores. And frankly, the fish scales you may have heard are in your lipsticks (true) look positively wonderful compared with some of the nanoparticles you've been putting on your lips lately.
And our own Food and Drug Administration, beloved of corporations and lobbyists everywhere, is quite clearly dragging its feet on this issue. Particularly interesting is the FDA's own FAQ section on their regulation of nano products, which you can access at http://www.fda.gov/nanotechnology/faqs.html, which essentially says, Hey, we haven't really done too much on it yet, but we're fixing to. And anyway, there's lots of stuff we don't even regulate at all, so we really don't see what the big deal is: "Because FDA has limited regulatory authority over certain categories of products, the Agency may have limited authority over the use of nanotechnology related to those products. For example, there is no premarket approval of cosmetic products or their ingredients, with the exception of color additives."
So L'Oreal, for instance, is free to 'nano away' with their cosmetics, a category that includes hair care and makeup products, and as long as they say those products are safe, well, that's good enough for the FDA. Another problem, at least for consumers, is that current regulations do not require new testing or labeling for nanomaterials when they are created from existing, approved chemicals. For example, a company manufacturing sunscreen may have previously shown that their regular zinc oxide was safe to rub on your nose; that means that the same zinc oxide in nano form (which is transparent, by the way, so don't expect that goopy white stuff) does not need to be retested, or even labeled differently. Unfortunately, it's the size of the particles that may be causing the harm, and not the ingredient itself, and nothing in our laws requires manufacturers to label anything that contains nanoparticles, even food.
But of course our FDA would leap to our aid if they were putting nanoparticles in our food, wouldn't they? Let's take a look at those FAQs: "FDA is aware of several FDA regulated products that employ nanotechnology. However, to date, few manufacturers of regulated products have claimed the use of nanotechnology in the manufacture of their products or made any nanotechnology claims for the finished product." In other words, don't ask, don't tell. Does that make you wonder why, if nanotechnology is so safe, the manufacturers are hiding it?
So nanoparticles are in hundreds, if not thousands, of products we buy every day, but the manufacturers aren't required to tell us about it, and our federal agency overseeing the safety of our "personal care" and food supplies don't seem the least bit eager to ask them. Why?
Once again, follow the money. Years ago, the National Science Foundation predicted a $1 trillion market for nanotechnology by 2015; some experts predict it will be lower, while others predict it will be much higher. In any case, everyone agrees the money to be made from nanotechnology is astronomical, and companies around the world are doing their best to cash in on the bounty.
The problem, as you might expect, is that this desire to cash in has overtaken the need to ensure the safety of these products and of the people who use them, the people who make them, and, down the line, the environment into which we discard them when we're finished with them. We now have a National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), aimed at making us first in the race to nano-everything. Their Web site is www.nano.gov, and they offer a handy guide to all things nano at http://www.nano.gov/Nanotechnology_BigThingsfromaTinyWorldspread.pdf. As you might expect, it's a peppy spiel, with only brief mention of the "undesirable or unintended impacts" of nanotechnology, but the NNI does tell us that the Initiative funds research to help avoid those little problems. The problem with that, of course, is the same problem we find in, say, Aspartame makers funding studies showing the stuff is safe: It's hardly unbiased research.
And speaking of harmful substances we might consume, a new, and cautionary, report published by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (www.nanotechproject.org), a joint project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts, says the number of dietary supplement products claiming to use nanoscale ingredients has more than tripled in the past two years to over 40 products. The same report says that neither the FDA nor the supplement manufacturers are doing the testing that would help them, and us, understand the effects of such nanoingredients. Are the risks of ingesting nanoparticles in a supplement worth the possible benefit? Who knows? And no one is going to tell us, because they're not trying to find out.
The bottom line is, most of the money being spent on nanotechnology is being spent to manufacture and promote it, not to determine whether it's safe. By the time actual unbiased studies are produced, disseminated, studied, and then acted upon, which will surely take years, millions of people will have been using these products unknowingly, and doing what many scientists say can be devastating harm to themselves in the process.
And to be sure, the nanotech wagon has already left the barn, crowded with folks hoping to cash in on the next small thing. I don't mean to imply that the pursuit of nanotechnology should be abandoned; undoubtedly, such materials can hold great promise for us, particularly in the realms of medicine and green energy. I'm saying we should ensure that those who have climbed aboard that wagon are taking the necessary precautions, so that they, and we, are not crushed under its wheels as it rushes headlong toward us.
So what can you do to protect yourself? First and foremost, be informed. It will take some detective work, believe me. At the very least, read the labels on any personal care products you pick up, and if you see any of these words, chances are good they're made with nanoparticles: nano- as a prefix, liposome, micronized, quantum dots, or fullerenes.
Also, be aware that many common ingredients are widely available in nanoparticle size, and because of the lack of labeling requirements, you'll have no way of knowing whether the particles in your product are the old-fashioned large ones or the new-fangled nanos when you see these (and many others) on your label: aluminum, bismuth, calcium carbonate, magnesium oxide, and silver. (In fact, an entire industry has sprung up around the use of silver for various purposes; however, much of that silver is nanosilver, so beware.) For a comprehensive listing of ingredients to watch for, and a lot of excellent information on nanotechnology in general, check out the Environmental Working Group at http://www.ewg.org/node/21738.
For further reading, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies offers a fairly comprehensive listing of the places where you'll be finding nanomaterials; just click on the button marked "Inventories" at the top of their home page. You'll find the list includes everything from dog beds to iPods to food storage containers, as well as, yes, cosmetics and related products, which is the longest list of all.
Another excellent site for checking out personal care products, for not only yourself but your children, is the Environmental Working Group's ongoing database called Skin Deep, which allows you to search everything from baby lotion to eyeliner to perfume. It's a real eye-opener, and it ranks each product for toxicity (green is safest, red is, well, not so safe). You'll find it here: www.cosmeticdatabase.com.
Keep reading, stay safe, and while you're at it, maybe send the FDA a little note telling them to get off their butts on this issue. It's too important to all of us, as well as to our environment, to let the corporations be calling the shots on the nanotech revolution.
List of Sunscreens reported to not contain any nano-ingredients:
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