Nanotechnology — What it Means For Consumers Like You

Nanotechnology — the design and manipulation of matter at the atomic and molecular level — is pretty impressive stuff. It has the potential of creating a new generation of products that are stronger, cleaner, faster, lighter and more precise. But along with these advancements come some complications. Just what are the pros and cons? I’ll start by looking at how nanotechnology is already affecting us when we (often unknowingly) buy products that contain nanoparticles.

We’re talking about incredibly small stuff here. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. To get an idea of the size of nanoparticles, look at a sheet of paper and know that it’s about 100,000 nanometers thick.

Adding these tiny particles to plastics makes them stronger, lighter and more durable. They’re already used in baseball bats and tennis rackets, and they may be used in the future for things like bullet-proof vests. Food containers and cookware with nanosilver particles are anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-microbial. Nanoparticles inside refrigerators help sterilize and deodorize. They are also popular in beauty products because they are small enough to penetrate deeply into skin, correcting discolorations and eliminating wrinkles. Invisible sunscreens are a product of nanotechnology as well.

To date, more than 800 products contain nanoparticles. Some companies self-report on their use of nanoparticles, but it’s not required so it’s likely that this list of products is actually much longer. Why should you care? Well, the world of nanotechnology is not all sunshine and rainbows.

Nanotechnology clearly has many potential benefits, but are there dangers? The problem is that we don’t fully know. Nanoparticles enter our bodies through beauty products and possibly through food (absorbed from its packaging). But there’s limited research on the health risks posed by nanoparticles. The environmental group Friends of the Earth (FoE) reports that only approximately 100 food-related products containing nanoparticles have a warning label or have undergone safety testing by a government agency. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have begun preliminary research, a lot more still needs to be done.

In one study, researchers reported that a class of nanoparticles could cause lung damage. Another study shows how nanotubes (found in tennis rackets) have similar health risks to asbestos. Nanoparticles tend to migrate to the lungs, but other organs may be affected as well. Nanoparticles are also small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain from toxins in the bloodstream. Needless to say, it would be simply irresponsible not to pursue more risk research and to increase precautions in the meantime.

We are blindly forging into new territory and we need to slow down.  Nanotechnology is exciting in its potential but if we don’t fully understand the risks involved, innovation may become self-destructive. The first step is to start being aware — how does nanotechnology play a role in your life?

Despite the health scare of nanoparticles, the truth is that they are less likely to harm consumers than the workers who make the products. In the next post of this series, we’ll look at the implications for the workers behind the scenes. Stay tuned…

P.S. Sign the petition and tell your member of congress to address the potential risks of this important new technology before it’s too late.


P H.
P H9 years ago

Most popular sunscreens contain nano particles. When it says titanium dioxide there are two kinds non-nano and nano. You can read more at the EWG website.

Amanda R.
Amanda R9 years ago

JoAnn, please don't listen to people who feed you that kind of crap. Some things cause destruction and some things don't. Many things that destroy can be avoided while some can't. It's that simple, really, and if you CAN avoid something harmful, why wouldn't you?

Oh that's right, because companies that make harmful products say, "Everything causes cancer! You may as well use this!" Of course, that logic makes no sense, but...

(Excuse me if I misunderstood what you were saying, it wasn't that clear.)

JoAnn W.
JoAnn W9 years ago

The SKY IS FALLING !!!!! HAS ANYONE SEEN "HENY PENY"? Everything you do now adays has to have some major adjustment to it to be correct!!! Can you imagine for a MINUTE 1900 SEEMS TO BE THE PROBLEM BUT THE 1900'S ARE OVER AND WE ADAPTED, KAY SERA SERA WHATEVER WILL BE WILL BE....!!!!!

Susan D.
Susan D9 years ago

Scary stuff! Strangely, I am sure I recall a little while back, L'Oreal (whose products I never purchase due to the company's use of animal testing) advertising a face creme that uses nano-technology, promoting this as an advantage. Can't remember what it was called though.

Walter G.
Walter G9 years ago

Any legal control of this technology, just as in the case of chemicals, medications, communications, and individuals, will be subverted to the will of a few.

One factor is undeniable, medical treatment will cost more.

Lee G.
Lee G9 years ago

Warning lables, with the title, WARNING, large enough to read by a large majority of customers, should be manditory on every product with potential danger. eg. The consumer has the right to know if there is potential to cross the blood/brain barrier, then make an informed decision about using the product. This may up the cost of products by necessity of having an information sheet available to a customer before purchase, but that is preferable to waiting for the government to make rules, or leaving the customer clueless.
Some stores have books of information product pamphlets so one can look up "headache" and read the ingredients and side affects. That should be available in all stores, then people should be educated to seek out those pamphlets. The present educational program:"read the label" is difficult because the print is too small for many people to read.

Frances Reiss
Fiona Ogilvie9 years ago

I believe that the study of human and environmental effects should be abreast or ahead of the study to produce more products with nano particles. I think both lines of research could yield promising results.

Rick F.
Rick F9 years ago

The manufacture, sale, and use of nanotechnology created materials appear to be outside the law and therefore any regulatory agency responsibility for protecting human health. Just because it is science does not mean it is for mankind's benefit. This is another example of the failure of our government through both ignorance and negligence to protect Americans from the insidious activities of business enterprise behavior for profits over human health.
As noted in the article, nanotechnology products are small enough to enter our bodies through our skin and collect in our organs and tissues, which include our brain. Any substance that can cross the blood-brain barrier will affect a person’s physical and mental health. Many prescription drugs cannot pass the blood-brain barrier, and it is one of the difficulties facing researchers in finding a medication for Alzheimer’s. Why should we let substances of unknown consequence cross?
The manufacture, sale, and use (including imports and exports) of nanotechnology products should be banned until sufficient and extensive testing of these substances is deemed safe or not.
Using us and the environment as a test population for health consequences to "see what happens" is worse than unconscionable.
Our children and their progeny deserve better under our watch.