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Nanotechnology, Toxicology and the Consumer: Hope or Health Risk?

By W. Shane Journeay

Tiny man-made 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.

Nanoparticles can 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.

Nanotechnology 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.

Nanotechnology 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.

Consumers, 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 consumer products.

Nanomaterials are 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’.

Protecting the consumer: 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.

Difficult to regulate: There is 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 such ingredients.

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.

Nanotechnology is 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 done: 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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