Nanotechnology is a relatively new technology that utilizes tiny particles, which are slightly larger than molecules, but smaller than cells. Carbon, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, silver, heavy metals and salts can all be engineered at this scale. Being a new discipline, the larger repercussions that nanoparticles may have on the environment and our bodies are just now starting to be understood.
Nanoparticles have found widespread use in a variety of personal care products, including sunscreen, toothpaste, aftershave lotion, shampoo, cosmetics, moisturizers and anti-wrinkle creams. However, researchers have begun to raise serious concerns over the use of nanotechnology in these products. Recent studies have shown that nanoparticles are small enough to penetrate cells and move around the body in the blood. This could potentially have negative consequences, as researchers have also found that titanium dioxide nanoparticles can cause DNA damage, nerve damage and birth defects in laboratory animals.
Nanotechnology is also utilized in the production of lightweight and strong materials like the carbon fiber used in bicycles, tennis rackets and other items. Although carbon “nanotubes” are useful in products and equipment that can exploit their strength, emerging research has identified many similarities between carbon nanotubes and asbestos fibers, leading some researchers to question whether lung damage or mesothelioma-like problems may arise from their use.
Finally, due to their conductivity and ability to store energy, nanoparticles are being used in many electronics, as well as in an assortment of medical technologies and devices. Silver nanoparticles, in particular, are being used for their antimicrobial properties and can be found in sheets, towels, stuffed animals and garments, such as sport bras. However, because the particles are not covalently bonded to the fabric, there is the potential that they can migrate into the bloodstream. In addition, silver nanoparticles are found in some cleaning products, where they may have negative effects on the beneficial bacteria used to clean water in wastewater treatment plants, lakes and rivers.
In the United States, the use of nanotechnology comes under the authority of the FDA and the Consumer Products Safety Commission. The rapid introduction of nano-based products and processes into the market has outpaced the ability of these regulating agencies to keep up: every effort must be made now to remediate this problem and protect consumers. This includes better labeling, not only for disclosure purposes, but also so that the public can make informed choices about what they buy.