Products Made with Nanoparticles Growing, But Safety Studies Lag
WASHINGTON (November 27, 2006) - The explosion of consumer products made with nanotechnology, highlighted today by an independent report, is raising growing concern among scientists and health experts that too little is known about potential health risks. Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of materials one-billionth of a meter in size -- larger than atoms, but much smaller than a cell.
While such advances hold the promise of breakthroughs in biomedical treatments, energy efficiency and many other fields, the very real potential risks posed by nanoparticles are largely being ignored, according to Dr. Jennifer Sass, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
"Nanoparticles behave unpredictably and could harm human beings, wildlife and the environment," Sass warned.
A report released today by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars found a 70 percent increase since March in the number of consumer products made with nanotechnology, such as food containers, stain-resistant clothing, eyeglass coatings that reduce glare, and even more durable tennis balls. In all, more than 350 such products are now on the market, according to the center's Project on Emerging Technologies. (For the report, go to www.nanotechproject.org/consumerproducts.)
"In the face of such a significant jump in the number of everyday products containing untested and unlabelled nanoparticles, the Environmental Protection Agency is moving much too slowly to ensure that they are safe," Sass said. "We need to know about the short- and long-term risks, especially since we're already wearing stain-resistant nanoparticle clothing, applying nanoparticle cosmetics and sunscreens, and swabbing our babies' bottoms with nanoparticle baby wipes."
The most prevalent nanomaterial today is nanosilver, which also is widely used as a pesticide. Today nanosilver is found in 47 consumer products -- nearly double the number from just eight months ago.
Samsung, for example, sells a new kind of washing machine that releases nanosilver ions during the wash and rinse cycles to kill bacteria. And Sharper Image is marketing nanosilver-treated slippers, socks and food containers that the company says are "anti-germ, anti-mold and anti-fungus."
Last week, the EPA announced that it plans to only regulate nanosilver products that are advertised as germ-killing. In a recent letter to the agency, NRDC asked it to review all consumer products containing nanosilver and require manufacturers to register such products as biocides. (For a copy of the letter, go to www.nrdc.org/media/docs/061127.pdf.)
Although very little is known about the risks associated with nanotechnology, laboratory tests have proved worrisome. Animal studies suggest that nanoparticles can cause inflammation, damage brain cells and cause pre-cancerous lesions. (See www.nrdc.org/health/science/nano.asp.)
"The genie is out of the bottle," Sass said, "and that's all the more reason the agency needs to move quickly to put some standards in place to protect the public."
NRDC's concerns are shared on Capitol Hill. At a hearing this fall, members of the House Science Committee criticized the Bush administration for moving too slowly to develop a research program on nanotechnology. "There is too much at stake to continue to dally," Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the committee's chairman and ranking Democrat, said in a November 15 statement.