Debbie Knight

A brave new (nano)world

In research issue(s) on February 26, 2011 at 6:27 pm

If it weren’t for science…

  • There wouldn’t be antibiotics. But on the other hand, if antibiotics weren’t overused, we wouldn’t have flesh-eating, antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
  • We wouldn’t have petrol for our cars. But on the other hand, if we didn’t use fossil fuels to make those cars move, we wouldn’t have such dramatic global climate changes happening today.
  • We wouldn’t have landed on the moon. And if we didn’t have rocket-launching ability, we wouldn’t have GPS or cable TV via satellites and our local space wouldn’t be crowded with potentially-hazardous orbiting space junk.

Who knows how today’s discoveries will impact the future.

Take, for instance, nanoparticles.  While nanoparticles range in size, it is generally accepted that the largest nanoparticles measure a mere 100 nanometers. This means it would take over 1600 trillion of the 100nm particles to fill one square inch cube.

These tiny beads are used in any number of consumer products. These include:

  • Sunscreens to improve UV protection by increasing the SPF,
  • Cosmetics and moisturizers to help them go on smoothly,
  • Automobile paint to improve durability,
  • Socks to keep them odor-free, and
  • Food to preserve the food item, enhance flavor, or improve nutritional value

And the list goes on…

The use of nanoparticles does not really alarm me – I think many will be beneficial. However, what concerns is that not much is known about their effects on human health and on the environment.


These tiny particles get into the environment where they are difficult, if not impossible, to detect. The impact on ecosystems as microscopic as bacteria or as macroscopic as plants and animals is not completely understood.

What we do know is that hard-working bacteria at sewage treatment plants can be harmed by nanoparticles that get into our waste water when we wash our odor-free socks in the washing maching. Researchers have found that silver nanoparticles may be destroying some of the bacteria which are used to treat sewage. The waste treatment plant “sludge” is often used as an agricultural fertilizer, so beneficial bacteria in the soil may also be harmed.

And it’s possible for nanoparticles to enter into the food chain. Researchers added gold nanoparticles to water (to mimic consumer nanoparticles in wastewater sludge) and used the water on tobacco plants in a hydroponic green house. What they found was that the gold nanoparticles got into the plant’s leaves. And when tobacco hornworms ate those leaves, the gold nanoparticles concentrated 10 fold in the worm’s body. So here’s an example of  bioamplification.

So why have manufacturers chosen to use nanoparticles in consumer products before scientists can fully understand the effects these nanoparticles might have on the environment? And why is the FDA and the EPA allowing it? Well, many of the particles used in the nano-sized range have been deemed safe when they are used in the larger (bigger than nano-size) form. But mounting evidence suggests that nano-sized particles, in part because of their increased surface area, may have very different chemical and physical properties than their larger counterparts.

Many nanoparticles will prove beneficial to society with no detectable harm to the environment. But we, as consumers, need to be aware that some of the products we use may be harming the environment and ourselves more than we know.

What can be done?

More research by scientists, consumer awareness as well as consumer avoidance of products that use uncharacterized nanoparticles, and tighter regulation by the FDA and the EPA are needed.

  1. […] series of photos shows my labmate blasting a solution of tiny nanoparticles with sound waves in a process called sonication. The sound waves are generated at the tip of the […]

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