Nanotechnology is increasingly in the news, both for the benefits that it could bring – and for the very uncertain risks it could pose to our health.
Last week, British university researchers reported a startling result from a toxicology experiment. They exposed human cells to nano-scale cobalt-chromium and used a human cell barrier of 4 cells thick to protect the cells. To their surprise, the metal seemed to interfere with the DNA inside the cells, by sending chemical signals through the barrier.
A medical law expert, Professor Thomas Faunce said,
What [this latest research is] saying is once nanoparticles are in the body they have a capacity to cause toxicological effects at a distance.”
This study has been criticized by other leading experts on nano toxicity for using artificially high exposures to the metal, and not using actual human organs. Still, the bottom line is that nanotechnology may have very unexpected effects on human bodies, and scientists have much to learn about these effects. We just don’t know at this time whether the “action at a distance” effect might be important in our bodies.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of companies don’t disclose whether their products feature nanotechnology. Yet, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Nanotechnology Inventory just went past 1000 products that claim to have nano-particles in them. Many sunscreen products have nano-titanium dioxide, and nano-silver is increasingly used as an anti-microbial in clothes such as underwear. Companies should be honest about what’s in their products, so that we can decide whether we want to take the risk.
This post was written by Professor Alastair Iles is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Iles studies science, technology, and environment, with a focus on how technologies – ranging from chemistry, energy systems, environmental health monitoring, to information technology – affect society and the environment. He received his PhD in Environmental Law and Policy from Harvard University, and previously studied Law at the University of Melbourne, Australia.