By David Funkhouser — June 23, 2010
Nanotechnology may be an “emerging” science, but we’re already slathering its products on our skin, wearing them to go hiking and ingesting them in medicines and food. With more than 1,000 consumer items using nanomaterials already out there, a new California study urges government to take action to find out which ones might be dangerous and start getting them under control.
“We must determine the toxicity of molecules and nano particles before the public and workforce are exposed; otherwise citizens become experimental subjects,” said Carl Cranor, a professor at the University of California at Riverside and a member of the study’s science advisory panel.
The report, prepared by the University of California/San Francisco’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, recommends that state agencies try to speed up the regulatory process, and look at whether they can act under existing policies to put curbs on some materials, rather than waiting for new legislation.
The study says the agencies should:
• Start identifying whether nano-sized materials are more toxic than the bulk material.
• Find out how much nanomaterial is being used in particular products.
• Figure out how much of the material the public and environment are being exposed to.
• Require labeling for products that employ nanotechnology that has already been linked to cancer and reproductive effects.
The more than 1,000 nano-enhanced products on the market include toothpaste, sunscreen, cosmetics, food, clothing, cleaning products, paints, air fresheners, sports equipment and electronics. (For an inventory of products, click here.)
Nanomaterials’ sometimes astounding properties have already been shown to offer great potential in a variety of fields, from medicine to electronics. But the study points to a growing body of research that shows exposure to some kinds of nanomaterials may pose serious health risks. And nanomaterials are for the most part unregulated.
The California Environmental Protection Agency commissioned the study, which argues that the state should determine whether chemical materials are safe before they go into the marketplace. To read the study, click here.
One of the lead authors, Amber Weiss, said the California EPA wanted more information on the possible health effects of nanomaterials in consumer products and on the environment. She said it’s key for policymakers to balance the different exposures, risks and benefits of the various uses for nanomaterials.
“A lot of the consumer-based products are in my opinion not giving us a lot of benefit,” Weiss said. “I don’t think personally think that all these things are posing a big risk to human health at the moment, [but] there’s a lot of unknowns out there.”
She said the study authors hope the document will serve as a guide for the nation as well as for California.
And the nation could use some guidelines. The federal EPA has been studying the issue for several years now, but there are barely any rules regarding the use of nanomaterials.
The federal Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission are limited in their authority to act before products show up on store shelves, noted Jennifer Sass, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who served on the study’s advisory panel. The FDA, for instance, cannot force cosmetic companies to provide safety data on their products, some of which now contain nanomaterials.
The CPSC can’t impose safety standards if an industry agrees to write its own standards; it can’t inform the public about products without the manufacturer’s consent; and it can’t require pre-market testing, Sass said.
Congress is working to rewrite the 34-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act. Some lawmakers are pushing for a shift in policy that would require industries to establish the safety of chemicals before they go on the market.
Pesticides are an exception under current federal policy. This spring, the EPA told manufacturers they would have to treat nanomaterials such as nano-silver in pesticides as “new” chemicals—which puts the onus on the industry to prove they’re safe.
Because of their extremely small size, measured in billionths of a meter, nanoparticles act differently from their larger versions. They have far more surface area, which makes them more reactive with their surroundings; and they’re small enough to pass through cell walls and interfere with biological processes.
Some nanomaterials are already known to be dangerous, and they need to be better assessed, the California study says. Carbon nanotubes, used in electronics and to strengthen sports equipment, may pose risks similar to asbestos fibers, which can cause fatal lung damage if inhaled. Other studies have shown genetic and developmental damage in mice resulting from exposure to nano-scale titanium dioxide—a common ingredient in suncreens and UV-blocking clothing.
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control in January asked industries making or importing carbon nanotubes to report how they handle the materials, and how they’re tested for safety. A spokeswoman said the new study would not change the department’s current strategy of seeking more information on how certain nanomaterials are used and tested.
The city of Berkeley is apparently the first in the country to require researchers and manufacturers to disclose what nano-based materials they’re using or making, how they’re handling them, and to what extent they’re toxic. In the latter case, the problem is that in many cases, they don’t know.
(This story originally appeared on the New Haven Independent web site on June 23, 2010.)