Photo courtesy of Aine D.
My friend recently sent me an email about the possible risks of nanotechnology.We both have been following this for sometime but as she states in her email to me “this issue has finally become mainstream” as evidenced by an article on Consumer Reports’ website, entitled “Nanotechnology Untold Promise, Unknown Risk”
What is Nanotechnology?
According to the Woodrow Wilson School of Center Project on Emerging Technologies, nanotechnology is defined as follows:
“Nanotechnology is the art and science of manipulating matter at the nanoscale (down to 1/100,000 the width of a human hair) to create new and unique materials and products. The opportunities to do things differently with nanotechnology have enormous potential to change society. An estimated global research and development investment of nearly $9 billion per year is anticipated to lead to new medical treatments and tools; more efficient energy production, storage and transmission; better access to clean water; more effective pollution reduction and prevention; and stronger, lighter materials. And these are just a few of the more significant ways in which people are discussing using the technology.” 1
A Consumer Report article states that despite the advances that Nanotechnology can offer society, it is not known if there are risks to human life or our environment.
“The smaller the particle, for example, the more atoms there are on its surface rather than hidden inside. The more surface atoms, the more likely the particle will to react chemically with other compounds. As a result, elements that are harmful in conventional form can become more dangerous as nanoparticles, and even normally benign substances might become toxic when nanosized.”2
The story focuses on three different nanotechnologies: fullerenes, silver, and carbon nanotubes. Fullerenes is used in cosmetics, fuel cells and many other products.
“Recent studies have shown that fullerenes, composed of spherically arranged carbon atoms, might damage cells in fish, kill other aquatic microorganisms, and harm human liver cells and DNA. Moreover, they can penetrate the skin, at least when it’s repeatedly stretched. “3
Products using silver nanotechnology promote their antibacterial capabilities, which include silver interior coated refrigerators, toothbrushes, and bandages.
“Whether silver nanoparticles or ions pose health risks is not known. But the National Association of Clean Water Agencies is concerned about their environmental impact. Noting that ‘silver is highly toxic to aquatic life,’ the group asked the Environmental Protection Agency in early 2006 to regulate as pesticides all products that release silver particles.” 4
Products using carbon nanotechnology are sealed in composites in sport equipment, electronic equipment and auto-body parts. Since they are sealed in a composite, the risk of being airborne is slim. However, these carbons may be released “when nanotechnology products are thrown away or incinerated. Currently, lab and factory workers probably face the most exposure.”5
Several animal studies have identified one of the carbon nanotechnology, single-walled nanotubes, that can inflame the lungs.
“One study found rapid lung damage in mice exposed to the equivalent of the workplace limit for another form of carbon. An accompanying commentary on that study warned that nanotube workers might therefore be at risk for pulmonary fibrosis, or potentially fatal scarring of the lungs. “6
So what does all of this have to do with sunscreen?
Most sunscreen products that contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide contain nanoparticles of these ingredients. Consumer Reports found only one product, Key Solar Rx that disclosed its use of nanotechnology.
“Nanoparticles of the two compounds are used in sunscreens because the normally white substances, which absorb ultraviolet radiation, become more transparent when the particles are nano-sized. We asked an outside lab to test for those nanoparticles in eight sunscreens that listed either compound on their label.
Lab studies indicate that both of those nanoingredients create free radicals that damage the DNA of cells and possibly cause other harm as well. And even low exposure to nanoparticles of titanium dioxide can damage the lungs of animals if inhaled. But whether those particles in sunscreens pose direct health risks to humans depends mainly on whether they penetrate the protective outer layers of dead skin. Studies suggest they don’t reach live tissue under normal circumstances. But it’s not known whether skin damaged by acne, eczema, sunburn, or nicks from shaving is more vulnerable to penetration, says Kristen Kulinowski, director of the International Council on Nanotechnology, which promotes responsible development of nanotech. And studies of other nanoparticles show they can penetrate the outer skin layers through the hair follicles or when the skin is repeatedly stretched.” 7
Consumer Reports suggests using products that do not contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide until adequate safety studies have been completed. Their top scoring US product for protection for UVA and UVB radiation is Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch SPF 45, which did not contain either ingredient.
“Until there’s adequate safety assessment, people who wish to avoid exposure to those nanoingredients could choose sunscreens that don’t list titanium dioxide or zinc oxide on their label. That wouldn’t require settling for less sun protection: Our tests found no correlation between effectiveness and the presence of those ingredients.”8
So what can a consumer do?
First, click on the hyperlink above for the Article in Consumer Reports and read all of its subsection on the left hand side of the website. I have only provided you with a small sampling of the Article. Please read the entire Article and its associated subsections; otherwise, you may not obtain a clear understanding of the issues of surrounding nanotechnology.
Second, realize that most products do not contain labels that identify their use of nanotechnology in their ingredients. However, some do. Consumer Report advises you should look at the labels for products that you either ingest or put on your skin.
In addition, The Wilson Center‘s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies list 470 products that advertise or contain labels that indicate that the products contain nano-ingredients. My friend pointed out that Burt Bee’s No Chemical Free Suntan Lotion SPF 15 containing nanoingredients. This shocked me.
Go to the Nanoproject to search products you are thinking of buying.
Third, speak up! Consumer Report urges everyone to contact the FDA and the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office requesting for more testing, approving and regulation of products containing nanotechnology.
In addition, I urge you to include with your message that all products that contain nanoingredients must clearly state the same on their labels and specify which ingredients are nano-ingredients.
My friend urged me to write a letter expressing my concern. I sent a letter via email on the FDA website and urge you to do the same.