Friday, June 19, 2009

Nano-technology Not So Safe?

Nanotechnologies are now commonly found in sunscreen, cosmetics, food, clothing, sporting goods and packaging but a recent report put out by Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN) claims:
"...some of these technologies are showing signs of posing serious hazards to human health and the environment, including the same kind of grave threats resulting from exposure to asbestos." [link]

Dr George Burdock of the Burdock Group claims that
"...manufacturers lack understanding about how particles can change when they are shrunk to nano-size, and the current economic situation has exacerbated potential dangers, as some cost-cutting companies could look to cheaper, less reliable safety assessments." [link]
The new IEHN report concludes:
"As a result of weak regulations, companies do not assess, quantify or disclose potential and pending liabilities on a timely basis... Today, as potentially ultrahazardous nanotechnologies enter the market, the same regulatory weaknesses that allowed asbestos manufacturers to conceal information from investors are being abused once again to conceal information regarding the newer technologies. Regulators must act now to prevent a repeat of past financial disasters, and to ensure that investors' expectations of forthright accounting are met. Although our report focuses on product-related liabilities, many of our findings are equally applicable to the broader array of contingent liabilities that appear in disclosure reports and financial statements."
With current worldwide annual investment in nano-technology research and development at $9.6 Billion and set to grow to $1 Trillion by 2015, the eight regulatory loopholes are of great concern -- for the financial industry as well as to the health and safety of consumers around the globe.

The complete report (52 pages) can be read on the IEHN website through this link.

I'd like to quote a few excerpts here:
Nanomaterials can represent a special threat to health and safety because the unprecedented manipulation of particles at the molecular scale brings with it unprecedented toxicity expectations - as the particle size decreases so dramatically, materials are able to penetrate the body much more aggressively. In addition, the molecular scale causes reactivity to increase so that harmful effects can be intensified. Previously harmless substances may even take on hazardous characteristics.

Laboratory studies indicate that some nanoparticles ingested from food or water, or breathed in, can pass through the intestinal walls or lungs and reach the bloodstream, allowing them almost unrestricted access to the human body. Some inhaled nanomaterials can access the brain, as they can pass the blood-brain barrier via the olfactory nerve.

Despite the growing number of nanotech food products on the market, consumers have no way of knowing which products contain nanotechnology. Other proposed uses of nano in food include: "interactive" drinks that contain nanocapsules that change color and flavor, spreads and ice creams with nanoparticle emulsions that improve texture, and nanocapsules that carry nutrients and flavors into the body, increasing their bioavailability.

The "nutritional products" segment of RBC Life Sciences markets nutritional supplements and personal care products, and accounted for 79%, 83% and 83% of consolidated net sales in 2008, 2007, and 2006, respectively.51 According to the company’s most recent annual report, they market a line of over 75 nutritional supplements and personal care products, including herbs, vitamins and minerals, as well as natural skin, hair and body care products. Some of these are advertised as food products, while others are "nanoceuticals," or nutritional supplements. One such product is RBC Life Sciences’ Slim Shake, containing Cocoa-Clusters. CocoaClusters are described as follows:

“The natural benefits of cocoa have now been combined with modern technology to create CocoaClusters. RBC’s NanoClusters are tiny particles, 100,000th the size of a single grain of sand, and they are designed to carry nutrition into your cells. During the process of creating Nano-Clusters, pure Cocoa is added to the "Cluster" formation to enhance the taste and the benefits of this treasured food.” This food is touted as a "technologically advanced form of cocoa that offers enhanced flavor without the need for excess sugar." However, nano-sized particles may not behave in the body the same way normal-sized particles of cocoa would behave. This product may therefore cause unintended health effects. RBC Life Science’s disclosure on the potential risks of its many nano-enabled products is nonexistent in its annual reports.

The use of nanosilver as an antimicrobial agent is now widespread, with a wide variety of products now on market shelves. The petitioners discovered no fewer than 260 selfidentified nano-silver consumer products. A recent study reported that nano-silver could harm the immune system, and other researchers have suggested that if nanoparticles from disinfectants get loose and into the body, they might wreak havoc with the human immune system.

"Recent research found that washing nanosilver impregnated clothing caused substantial amounts of nanosilver to leech into the discharge wastewater and eventually into the environment."

A particular group of nanomaterials, carbon nanotubes, raises special concerns because they are similar in shape and rigidity to asbestos fibers. Carbon nanotubes are "seamless cylinders of hexagonal carbon networks and are 10,000 times thinner than a human hair. They are a hundred times stronger and six times lighter than steel and are used in adhesives, coatings and polymers and as electrically conductive fillers in plastics to make polymers more resistant against temperatures, harsh chemicals, corrosive environments, extreme pressures and abrasion."

Multiple laboratories have already independently found that certain carbon nanotubes can cause progressive, irreversible lung damage in test rodents. Two 2003 studies conclusively showed lung damage from exposure to certain carbon nanotubes. Further studies on this topic have increasingly strengthened the link between certain carbon nanotubes and pulmonary damage.

Regulators currently allow companies to conceal emerging science that forewarns of potential liabilities in the future.

If you truly want to learn more, I highly recommend you read the full report.