Nanotechnology, Toxicology and the Consumer: Hope or
By W. Shane Journeay
particles that cannot be seen with the naked eye are rapidly
entering the lives of people around the world. Nanotechnology is
growing fast despite unknown potential toxic effects on humans and
the environment. It may however help with new treatments for cancer
and provide engineering marvels.
be small spheres, sharp tubular structures, cubes, rods or clumps of
particles. Nanotechnology is being studied for thousands of
applications that can impact every facet of society, yet accounting
for their behavior in consumer products, in the body, and the
environment is proving to be problematic for industry and regulatory
bodies such as the FDA, EPA and Health Canada.
bridges scientific disciplines such as chemistry, biology, physics,
and engineering and provides a wide range of applications. In fact,
nanotechnology is projected to be so ubiquitous in the world that it
is considered a disruptive technology. Nanomaterials are very small
particles of approximately 100nm (a human hair can range from 10 000
to 50 000 nm) with unique behaviors and properties. The particles
can be produced with complex chemistry but essentially they are
created by decreasing the size of larger particles down to very
small ones or, conversely, building nanoparticles by piecing
together atoms and molecules into nanoscale particles with cutting
edge tools. Particles reduced to this size take on new properties
for which researchers hope to exploit for commercial benefit. These
new properties, however, may also cause toxicity in a different
manner than traditional chemicals.
is here now:
Despite billions of
dollars being spent globally on nanotechnology, one recent survey
showed that 80% of Americans have heard very little or nothing about
its development. Despite this fact, more than 90% of those polled
had some opinion regarding the cost vs benefit of this new
technology, even when supplied with no additional information.
regulatory groups, and industry will often state that we do not have
to worry about nanotechnology at present because it is futuristic
and will not be relevant for a minimum of 5 to 10 years from now.
This could not be farther from the truth. In fact, regulatory
agencies are already receiving packages for approval for the
marketing and application of nanomaterials in raw form as well as in
already being used in consumer products such as sunscreens, food
additives, clothing, cosmetics, tires, sprays, rubber products,
catalysts, foam, adhesives, paints, and pigments. Even militaries
are studying the application of nanoparticles for improved
combustibility of fuels and explosivity of bombs. These are early
and modest mainstream applications of nanotechnology being used now
whether they are reported as nanotechnology to the consumer or not.
While this exciting
technology holds a broad range of promises and improvements in
products, energy sources, and medical treatments, it is not magic
nor is it all dark, as some groups have portrayed it. In all its
flare, nanotechnology is still a science, albeit our ability to
work, build, and manipulate at the nanoscale opens up a new window
to understanding the foundations of chemistry, physics and biology.
Nanotechnology will not cure cancer overnight, but will undoubtedly
improve our current diagnosis, imaging, and treatment in oncology.
Driving some of the hope of nanotechnology is the National Cancer
Institute of the USA which has reported that ‘Nanotechnology will
change the very foundations of cancer diagnosis and treatment.’
Conversely, the opponents of nanotechnology prosperity cling to
science fiction literature that uncontrolled self-assembling
nanobots will lead to our demise amidst a ‘grey goo’.
When is the last
time such a widespread technology was allowed to permeate society
where the toxic consequences have the potential to impact its
contribution to all areas of human and environmental health,
industry, and government?
Early studies have
demonstrated toxicity of some nanoparticles in mice, aquatic
organisms, and cell lines. Of note, nanoparticles can be inhaled and
translocated out of the lung to the liver and even into the brain.
Other research has shown toxic effects in fish and plants. Ongoing
research is being devoted to understanding which chemical properties
make nanomaterials toxic and which aspects make them biocompatible.
Toxicity could be
the limiting factor to the commercial success and public acceptance
of nanotechnology based products. Only a tiny fraction of funding
devoted to nanotechnology has been set aside to determine the human
and environmental health effects of nanoparticles. Today, the next
big paradigm shift is actually really small and our ability to work
at the molecular level is undoubtedly facilitating the discovery of
new or value-added products in which our very understanding of their
function depends on nanoscale biology, chemistry and physics. As
with any new technology that moves as fast as nanotechnology the
societal impacts are being debated.
A central issue is
the potential human and environmental costs and benefits of this
technology. These impacts are being portrayed in both a positive and
negative light. On one hand, nanotechnology is being hailed for
green energy as well as improved drugs and diagnostic ability for
diseases such as cancer. However, these benefits are being tempered
by some groups who are raising concerns over the occupational,
environmental, and consumer health effects of nanomaterial exposure.
At present, those wishing to commercialize, invest in, or regulate
nanotechnology do not have the resources in which to guide the
implementation of nanotechnology such that it meets the
considerations of human and environmental health. Moreover, in
today’s increasingly environmentally green culture, human health and
environmental impacts will directly relate to the financial success
of a product.
considerable ambiguity over what constitutes a nanomaterial, thus
creating huge challenges for corporations trying to foresee the
regulatory hurdles of nanotechnology based products. Furthermore,
government agencies are not prepared from a regulatory perspective
because deciding what specifically to target for regulation is a
complex task. As a result, many nanotechnology based products are
entering the market and the bodies of consumers at a rapid pace
without solid information on their toxicity. At present, there are
some groups claiming nanotechnology-based value in their products,
while others have nanomaterials in their product and do not report
When we look at
recent problems in the environment such as Bisphenol A, it begs the
questions, what will the consumer, regulatory, and industrial
response be when we have nanomaterials in baby bottles, food
packaging, clothing and cosmetics?
The great unknown
in nanotechnology is whether the increased production, handling, and
exposure to nano-products will lead to adverse effects in humans and
the environment. There are at least two camps in this debate. Some
say to move forward with the development and wait and see what
scientific conclusions can be made about nanomaterials toxicity. At
the other end of the spectrum are those who wish for strict
adherence to the precautionary principle and hope for a complete
moratorium on nanotechnology development before proceeding with
research, development, and commercialization.
here to stay and it is evolving rapidly with over 800 nano-enhanced
products on the market right now. Even in the midst of a recession,
nanotechnology will continue to develop and enter consumer products.
While nanotechnology holds great promise for medical, energy, and
environmental applications, its human and environmental impact will
continue to pose a challenge to regulatory bodies and the
increasingly ‘green-minded’ consumer.
What can be
While there is no easy solution to the potential toxicity associated
with nanotechnology, history would indicate that if government and
industry can take proactive measures to steward these materials
through consumer markets that adverse human, environmental, and
economic consequences from the past might be avoided. Specifically,
education and training on the effects of nanoparticles are crucial
for industry to set a lifecycle plan for their products and for
regulatory groups to make sound scientific decisions. Consumers can
also check products for nanotechnology ingredients or contact the
manufacturer of the products they are questioning.
W. Shane Journeay, PhD is a recognized expert on the toxicological
aspects of nanomaterials. Journeay received his BSc and Masters
Degrees at the University of Ottawa and earned his Ph.D. in
Toxicology at the University of Saskatchewan. He was also awarded a
Certificate in Space Studies from the International Space
University. Dr. Journeay is a toxicologist with specialization in
respiratory toxicology and the potential human and environmental
health risks associated with nanotechnology.
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