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Nanotechnology has become synonymous with big promises. Vaunted as 'the next industrial revolution, nanotechnology has been hyped as the key to everything from a clean energy future to a cure for cancer. It has made 'micronized' cosmetics, ultralight sports equipment and stain-resistant pants possible. Yet emerging studies suggest that nanotechnology could pose a threat to both the environment and to human health.

Nanotechnology is the science and engineering of incredibly small particles: up to 70 times smaller than a red blood cell. When substances are engineered or manipulated at the nano-level, their fundamental properties change. Nanomaterials can be stronger, lighter, more magnetic or more chemically reactive than their larger counterparts.

Investors and inventors alike hope to use the new technology to push the boundaries of matter, making formerly impossible processes and products a reality.

However, manufacturing nanomaterials requires huge energy inputs and generates hazardous byproducts, a recent report by the nonprofit organization Friends of the Earth states. Worst of all, nanoscale particles could be carcinogenic.

"I think consumers should be avoiding [nanoproducts], I really do," says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the NRDC's health and environment program.

Two nanomaterials frequently found in consumer products have been linked to degenerative diseases. Nano-titanium dioxide makes clothes antimicrobial, keeps sunscreens transparent and acts as a 'micronized' filler in cosmetic products. Carbon nanotubes make sports equipment ultra-light and are a key component of advanced electronic systems.

A recent UCLA study found that nano-titanium dioxide can damage and destroy DNA and chromosomes: a process linked to heart disease, brain diseases and cancer.

Although titanium dioxide has been used in surgical applications for decades, "when that very same chemical is nanosized, it can cause illness," Professor Robert Schiestel, a genetic toxicologist at the UCLA School of Public Health, told AOL news.

Nanoparticles are so small that they can be absorbed through the skin and eyes, move through cells and invade the body's life support systems. The particles can act as free radicals and affect our basic genetic components.

Someday, scientists hope to use nanoparticles' cell-destroying properties as a weapon against malignant tumors. Yet there's a difference between using nanoparticles as guided surgical instruments and inadvertently absorbing them into your skin.

Nano-titanium dioxide may also pose a threat to aquatic systems. A study at Arizona State University found that nanosilver can wash off consumer products and enter the water supply. The Friends of the Earth report noted that antibacterial nanomaterials can endanger the good bacteria that both aquatic systems and wastewater treatment plants depend on.

Nanotechnology is a new field, and little federal oversight exists, either on behalf of the FDA or the EPA. Of the nearly $14 billion in federal funding for nanotechnology since 2001 only a tiny fraction has gone to investigating the technology's potential risks. Regulation doesn't seem likely to strengthen anytime soon.

The lack of both accountability and data trouble David Rejeski, Director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

"Nobody is keeping people honest about the risks; nobody is keeping people honest about the benefits," Rejeski said. He noted that "there are still no labeling requirements in this country [for nanomaterials]."

In the United States, manufacturers don't have to include nanomaterials on product labels unless they choose to do so. While some keep nanomaterials off the ingredients list, others feed off the hype surrounding nanotechnology, market their product as 'nano', and claim outrageous health and environmental benefits.

What Can You Do?

The public health risk from sports equipment is "pretty low," Rejeski said, but both Rejeski and Sass advised against ingesting nanomaterials as health supplements or smearing them on your skin. Sass singled out nano-fortified cosmetics, in particular, as "a dangerous use of a chemical on your body."

As a general rule of thumb, consumers should avoid textiles, dietary supplements and cosmetics marketed as 'nano', 'micronized' or'‘antimicrobial'.

You might also want to investigate the Woodrow Wilson Center's inventory of products known to contain nanomaterials, or download their recently launched a companion iPhone app.

Even if a cosmetic product is labeled "organic" or "all-natural," that doesn't mean it's nano-free. Sass pointed out that 'organic' strictly means 'grown [or made] without pesticides'. It's a great environmental choice, but it's not a guarantee that a product, like a new bronzer, contains no nanoparticles. Check the ingredients list to see if a product lives up to its environmental claims, and when you seek out a specific term or eco-label, know what, exactly, you're buying.

Learn More

Check out the Chemical Index entry on nanomaterials.

Learn more from NRDC’s Issue Paper and ongoing Scientific Debate on nanotechnology

Fight for better chemical regulation of nanomaterials and other toxins.

last revised 8/22/2011

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