Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


As nanotechnology hits the marketplace, safety is a growing issue

Products “enhanced” with nano particles – from cosmetics to cleaning compounds – are already flooding the market.

The scientists and the audience of 50 or so people gathered at a recent science-policy forum in Washington, D.C., were engaged in a discussion that researchers would normally dread: predicting the future. One scientist talked about “gauging newly emerging waves,” while another spoke of “upstream oversight.”

The session, “Anticipatory Governance of Emerging Technologies,” lived up to its billing – an insider’s discussion of how federal regulatory agencies might develop rules to control new technologies that could pose a health or environmental threat to society.

But it quickly became clear that the most worrisome “emerging technology” is already here – nanotechnology. Whether in the form of anti-bacterial panties or canola oil that claims to reduce cholesterol, products “enhanced” with nano particles are already flooding the market. 

Nanotechnology is “getting ahead of the environmental, health and safety issues,” said Jennifer Kuzma, a biochemist focusing on technology risk and oversight issues at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. “And it is getting ahead of the legal and social implications of the research.” Kuzma was one of the researchers speaking at the meeting.

Focus is on science, not safety

Although the federal government spends more than a billion dollars on nanotechnology research annually, safety studies aren’t getting the funding they should, Kuzma noted. The focus is on science and “safety isn’t a scientific assessment, it’s a value,” she said. As for the hundreds of nanotech consumer products already coming onto the market, she observed that the “driving force is the marketplace, not social good.”

While the promise of nanotechnology can hardly be overstated, Kuzma is just one of many scientists and policy experts concerned that the enthusiasm pushing the field’s development is dwarfing the safety concerns. For most nonscientists, nanotechnology still seems exotic. Yet in 2007 about $60 billion worth of nano products were sold worldwide, and that number was expected to reach $150 billion in 2008, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnolgies, a joint effort by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trust. The Wilson center’s nano products database contains more than 800 items, everything from facial powder and toothpaste to baseball bats and anti-bacterial washing machines.  And right around the marketing corner are nanofoods.

Nanotechnology is the 25-year-old science based on incredibly tiny engineered particles. The U.S. government spends about $1.5 billion annually on nanotechnology research. Internationally about $7.5 billion is spent each year on research. Yet virtually everyone involved in nanotechnology – scientists, government officials, and industry representatives – concede that too little is known about the health effects of exposure to these particles. Nanoparticles are typically 1/100,000 the width of a human hair and exist on the scale of atoms and molecules. One of their key appeals is they are light and extremely strong. Carbon nanotubes can make a metal baseball bat up to 30 times stronger than a non-nano bat. Nanoparticles are also being envisioned as miniature containers that can deliver drugs directly into cells, and as strong, thin wires that can carry electricity over great distances.

But the size of nanotubes underlies many of the safety concerns. “The fear is that somebody will introduce the material in products and it will be harmful and nobody will recognize it,” said Andrew Maynard, the chief science adviser to the nanotechnology project. “It could be another asbestos, with particles [getting into the body] and having long latency periods before causing problems. That isn’t likely to happen, but people fear it.”

Concerns about absorption, inhalation
Maynard and other experts are concerned that nanoparticles in sunscreen and cosmetics could be absorbed through the skin, or that inhaled particles from facial powders could lodge deep in the lungs. “They are small enough that they can get to different places in the body, like the brain,” Maynard said.

Add to that the concern over the phenomenon that particles sometimes take on different properties when they become very small. Gold, for example, undergoes a “radical transformation” when it is reduced to the nano scale, Maynard said. “It turns red and becomes chemically reactive.” So something that is safe at a large scale may not be safe at the nano scale.

While there is uncertainty about the safety of nanoparticles in consumer products, even less is known about the use of nanotechnology in agricultural and food production, Kuzma said. She has looked at the use of nanoparticles being used as flavor enhancers in food, as anti-bacterial treatments for livestock, and as preservatives in food packaging. The health and safety issues, she said, remain “largely unexplored.”
The U.S. nanotechnology effort is overseen by the federal National Nanotechnology Initiative. Part of that initiative is a “working group” charged with making sure environmental and health aspects of nanotechnology are adequate. But a National Research Council report late last year found that there are “serious weaknesses” in the government’s health and environmental risks program. The money for researching the risk is inadequate, the report said, and despite the existence of the working group, “there is no single organization or person that will be held responsible” for overseeing safety research. 

Report calls for emerging-technologies agency
A report issued in April by J. Clarence Davies, a former Environmental Protection Agency official, called for the creation of a federal agency to provide the “new thinking, new laws and new organizational forms” necessary to handle the challenges of regulating nanotechnology and other emerging technologies. Kuzman and others think that the creation of an entirely new federal regulatory agency is both unlikely and unnecessary.

Congress stepped into the game with the passage of a bill earlier this year by the House of Representatives that requires federal agencies participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative to develop a plan for the environmental and safety research, and a roadmap for implementing it. A similar bill is expected in the Senate soon, and observers on Capitol Hill believe it will pass.

It will be years before the nanotechnology safety issues are entirely sorted out. In the meantime, Maynard said, “I don’t think the consumer should be too worried,” but there is concern “with products where it can get in your body [such as cosmetics]. If nanoparticles can get on your skin, or in your food, or in sprays that you’ll inhale, that would be of more concern than in a baseball bat.”

This story is provided by the Inside Science News Service. Jim Dawson is editor of the Washington D.C.-based news service, which is supported by the not-for-profit American Institute of Physics, a publisher of scientific journals. He was the science writer and editor at the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune for 13 years and a reporter there for 20 years. Contact him at