Nanoparticles vs. nanotechnology

by Samia McCully, ND

This article was originally published in May 2009

Nanoparticles are nothing new. They have been around for millions of years. A nanoparticle is anything that measures 100 nm (nanometer) or less. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. A human hair is 80,000 nm wide. Hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells, measures 5 nm.

Nanoparticles are present in the body as proteins and in nature — for instance, the ash of a forest fire. Nanotechnology, however, was started only in the early 1980s. Particles found in nature are of different sizes. Not every piece of ash is a nanoparticle. Some are smaller and some bigger.

In nanotechnology, particle sizes created are typically of uniform size. These are not naturally found in nature and are potentially hazardous.

Perspectives on nanotechnology

Daniel Fabricant, Ph.D., vice president of scientific affairs at National Products Association (NPA), asserts nanoparticles are completely safe and are not absorbed. There are other researchers who question that view.

In December 2006, the city of Berkeley, Calif. amended its hazardous materials law to include nanoparticles. It is the only local government in America to regulate nanotechnology.

Paul Alivisatos, director of the Material Science Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab says, “We know that nano-scale particles can enter inside cells and we know that could have consequences for health and so it is incumbent that we do research to understand what is the nature of the interaction between new engineered artificial nanoparticles and living systems, not just cells but whole living people.”

Overwhelming evidence that these particles are safe simply is not there.

Research published in a 2009 issue of the Journal of Health Sciences found titanium dioxide nanoparticles injected just under the skin of pregnant mice caused damage in their offspring to genital and cranial nerve systems. An article published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology in 1998 suggests that titanium dioxide nanoparticles cause lung damage in rats.

In a move indicating the start of nanotechnology regulation, the European Commission last September asked companies to submit safety data “with regard to all substances used at nano-scale and the final [cosmetic] products in which they are used” to allow for a complete risk assessment.

The European Union’s Drug Administration has the most stringent safety laws worldwide regarding personal care products. It recently banned products with the ingredient zinc oxide as a sunblock. Zinc oxide is not on its list of approved UV filters for skin protection, irrespective of particle size. As a result, Dr. Hauschka has discontinued all of its sunscreen products. Titanium dioxide also recently came into question and is being studied.

In the United States, there is no way so far to track or identify nanoparticles or any potential health problems related to them. There is no labeling requirement, just as the FDA does not require labels on genetically modified foods.

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