Nanotechnology: Is it Safe?

There's an old saying: Be careful what you wish for. Could all the promise that nanotechnology hold be a double-edged sword, delivering miracles while causing unanticipated problems? Because so much of nanotechnology is new or still under development, various safety concerns have been raised about the safety of nanomaterials. Here are a few examples:

  • When mice inhale carbon nanotubes, the material has been shown to lodge in their lungs, in a pattern similar to asbestos. What is not known is whether inhaled carbon nanotubes can cause cancer.
  • If nanoparticles used in creams such as sunscreens could penetrate the outer layer of skin would they cause damage to cells in the body? We found a variety of opinions on this question. To find the answer, the US National Center for Toxicological Research is conducting studies of the toxicity of the nanoparticles used in suncreens.
  • Can nanoparticles used in cleaning products cause damage to the environment? Perhaps. One study by researchers at Purdue University found that silver nanoparticles suspended in a solution were toxic to minnows

Dr. Linda Birnbaum, the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, made the following statement about nanomaterials:

"We currently know very little about nanoscale materials' effect on human health and the environment. The same properties that make nanomaterials so potentially beneficial in drug delivery and product development are some of the same reasons we need to be cautious about their presence in the environment"

Nanotechnology Safety Programs

To address some of these concerns, several organizations are setting themselves the task of watchdogging nanotechnology and safety issues. Here is a list of some of those programs:

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's National Center for Toxicological Research has created a Nanotechnology Core Facility that has stated that its mission is to:

"support nanotechnology toxicity studies, develops analytical tools to quantify nanomaterials in complex matrices, and develop procedures for characterizing namomaterials in FDA-regulated products."

  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's National Toxicology Program is also concerned. The program has engaged in a research program whose purpose it describes as: 

"to address potential human health hazards associated with the manufacture and use of nanoscale materials. This initiative is driven by the intense current and anticipated future research and development focus on nanotechnology. The goal of this research program is to evaluate the toxicological properties of major nanoscale materials classes which represent a cross-section of composition, size, surface coatings, and physicochemical properties, and use these as model systems to investigate fundamental questions concerning if and how nanoscale materials can interact with biological systems."

"assess workplace processes, materials, and control technologies associated with nanotechnology and conduct on-site assessments of potential occupational exposure to a variety of nanomaterials."

  • The NanoHealth Enterprise Initiative was proposed by the National Institutes of Health to address critical research needs for the safe development of nanoscale materials and devices. According to the NIH website, they propose:

 "a broad-based initiative that will employ state-of-the-art technologies in research to examine the fundamental physicochemical interactions of engineered nanomaterials (ENM) with biological systems at the molecular, cellular, and organ level. The NanoHealth Enterprise proposes a partnership of NIH institutes, federal agencies, and public and private partners to pursue the very best science, leverage investment for research efficiencies, and minimize the time from discovery to application of engineered nanomaterials."

  • The UK's Institute of Occupational Medicine has formed the Safenano Initiative which they have stated aims to:

"interpret and disseminate emerging scientific evidence about the health, safety and environmental issues of nanotechnology to industry, academia, occupational health practitioners and the general public. Our aim is to become the UK's premier independent site for information about Nanotechnology hazard, risk and good practice. "

  • The Safety of Nano-materials Interdisciplinary Research Centre (SnIRC) is a collaboration between the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh, Napier University, Aberdeen University, Edinburgh University, and the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Their stated goals are to:
    • increase awareness of the issues relating to nanoparticles, health, and environment.
    • become the UK centre for information and advice on the potential health, safety, and environmental impacts of generic or specifically engineered nano-materials, especially nanoparticles and nanotubes.
    • generate a comprehensive and coherent body of scientific evidence which would help towards developing relevant policies to promote UK nanotechnology growth while safeguarding workplace, public, and environmental health.
    • assist UK industry in developing safe nano-materials.
    • maintain and promote an international network of researchers and regulators actively involved in the safety of nanomaterials.
    • be the organisation for integrating UK research with corresponding US and European efforts.
    • maintain dialogue with the Research Co-ordination Group led by DEFRA in response to the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering Report.
    • raise support and funding for these activities.

The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has a program in which organizations in member countries are testing 14 key nanomaterials for human health and environmental safety.

Nanotechnology Safety Reports

Several significant reports on nanotechnology and safety concerns have been published which you might find interesting, including:

Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health and Safety Research, which defines the roles of various US government agencies in nanotechnology EHS research.

Managing the Health and Safety Concerns Associated with Engineered Nanomaterials; a report by the U.S. National  Institute for Occupational Safety and Health which  "should serve as a vital resource for stakeholders (including occupational safety and health professionals, researchers, policy makers, risk assessors, and workers in the industry) who wish to understand more about the safety and health implications of nanotechnology in the workplace."

Health and safety practices in occupational settings relevant to nanotechnologies; a report by the International Organization for Standardization has published a report which "provides advice for companies, researchers, workers and other people to prevent adverse health and safety consequences during the production, handling, use and disposal of manufactured nanomaterials. "

Engineered nanomaterials: A Review of the Toxicology and Health Hazards; a report commissioned by Safe Work Australia.

The Potential Risks Arising from Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies on Food and Feed Safety; a report by the European Food Safety Authority

Preliminary Opinion on Safety of Nanomaterials in Cosmetic Products, a report by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Products of the European Commission

The Appropriateness of the Risk Assessment Methodology in Accordance with the Technical Guidance Documents for New and Existing substances for Assessing the Risks of Nanomaterials, a report by the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks of the European Commission

A Review of the Scientific Literature on the Safety of Nanoparticulate Titanium Dioxide or zinc Oxide in Sunscreens A report prepared for the Australian Therapeutic Goods Adriminstration


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