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Does Nanotechnology have the Potential to be Dangerous?

written by: Emma Lloyd • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 11/25/2008

Nanotechnology may one day revolutionize the field of medicine (among others), but in the meantime, should we be concerned about the possible toxic side effects of using this new technology?

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    Nanotechnology is an exciting field, but could it be a dangerous one? Studies from the last few years indicate that certain types of nanomaterials may have unexpected properties which may have the potential to be harmful. Nanoparticles are tiny, but have a large surface area, and even when made of inert materials such as gold, can react in unexpected ways due to their unusual size.

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    Similarities to Asbestos

    A study published early in 2008 indicates that certain types of carbon nanotubes (a type of nanomaterial which has seen particularly frequent use for industrial and commercial applications) have the potential to cause mesothelioma. This cancer—which is incurable—is typically caused by exposure to asbestos. It has been suggested that if they are inhaled in large enough amounts, these carbon nanotubes might be just as harmful as asbestos is known to be.

    Another study, from the University of Rochester, discovered that when inhaled by rats, nanoparticles could lodge in the brain as well as the lungs.

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    Breaking the Skin Barrier

    Another potential issue with nanoparticles is simply that cause by their size – many are so tiny they can seep through the skin. Research has shown that smaller nanoparticles can accumulate in tissues – including the lymphatic system, the liver, and the nervous system. Particles accumulate in skin folds, and around hair follicles too.

    Particles of this size have been used in sunscreens, food containers, and home electronics, and we simply don’t know whether they may have a toxic effect or not.

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    Regulating Nanomaterials

    So clearly there are potential dangers – but there is simply not enough information available to determine whether these dangers are real, or whether these results have been due more to clinical factors rather than to any significant hazard.

    However, given past issues with toxic substances such as asbestos, PCBs, heavy metals, and other environmental toxins, it certainly makes sense to be cautious with nanotechnology.

    This year, the EPA has begun taking steps to start regulating the use of nanomaterials in industry, particularly in response to the studies indicating possible asbestos-like toxic effects.

    Earlier this year, the agency launched a study to obtain more information about nanomaterials, and in the meantime has developed some initial regulations, to be followed by companies which use nanomaterials.

    “Significant new use" of nanomaterials is now regulated under the under the Toxic Substances Control Act, meaning that any individual or company must provide the EPA with 90 days notice before beginning to import, manufacture, or process nanomaterials.