Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sweating the Small Stuff

Are you playing footsies with nanosilver? 
Photo is courtesy of Nanotechnology Citizen Engagement Organization which is located at

I just read about a strange, new science. It’s called nanotechnology. Maybe it isn't so new to you, but I tend to lag behind the curve when it comes to new technologies.

Just what is nanotechnology? Well, it involves altering or building new materials from atoms. Researchers are working mostly with carbon and metals. These particles are smaller than a human hair and not visible to the eye. They can only be seen with powerful microscopes. Because these particles are so small, they often have unique properties that differ from the properties of the larger-scaled versions of, say, carbon or silver. So nanocarbon and nanosilver do not behave the same way as regular carbon or silver.

Why should we care? Like most things in science, nanomaterials have the potential to do great things or to do not-so-great things. They are currently being used in electronics, medicine, personal care products (like sunscreen and cosmetics) and clothing. Every day, new uses are being found for them. What is not fully understood is how well the particles stay in these products or whether exposure to nanoparticles is safe for the environment which, by the way, includes people.

Over the past 11 years, clothing manufacturers, mostly from China, South Korea and other Asian countries, have marketed a long list of clothing containing antimicrobial nanosilver, according to AOL News. What type of clothing? Bras, panties, men's underwear, jogging outfits and camping clothing have them. These products are sold as "odor-free" or "germ-proof" because of the properties of nanosilver.

Fullerenes, also known as bucky balls, are a type of nanoscale carbon. They have been used in cosmetics sold in Australia, Europe and the United States. Cosmetics with fullerenes have been removed from shelves in the European Union and Australia over safety concerns. Are they still sold in the U.S.? According to the Friends of the Earth, they are. Unfortunately, manufacturers may not list them as ingredients, so it is difficult to know to what extent they are used.

Who cares? Apparently, some pesky public health activists do. These party-poopers have concerns about the safety and health effects of exposure to these antimicrobial nanoparticles. Why? Because nanoparticles have not yet been thoroughly tested. Hmmmm. I guess that makes us all nano test pilots. Pretty cool, eh? And not just people, but plants and animals, too!

Silver is known to be toxic to aquatic life and plants. A recent study found that when socks impregnated with nanosilver are washed, silver particles end up in the drain water. Another found that nanosilver inhibits the growth of beneficial bacteria that help break down harmful chemicals in wastewater treatment plants. So why is that important? Let's track this: Nanoparticles wash out of clothing. Then they end up in our wastewater. They pass through water treatment plants. Finally, they end up in our waterways and oceans. Once that happens, nanosilver may affect organisms that live there. Nanoparticles may also affect people who drink and cook with the water. Basically, these little guys are slowly easing their way into our natural environments.

First, let’s talk aquatic life.

Nanosilver can affect the stuff we like to eat, and the stuff that our food likes to eat. Silver is more toxic than most other metals to many fresh- and salt-water organisms, ranging from phytoplankton and marine invertebrates (such as oysters and snails) to different types of fish. Apparently, it can affect these creatures in their immature stages.

Nanosilver can also affect plant life. At Duke University, biologist Ben Colman and his team of researchers exposed pond weeds to the same level of nanosilver that EPA studies had found in various water treatment facilities. What happened? Some of the species of plants were 22 percent smaller than identical plants that weren't subjected to the antibacterial agents. I guess you could call nanosilver anti-fertilizer.

Now let’s talk about people.

A Japanese study in 2009 found that nanoparticles of titanium oxide could be transferred from pregnant mice to their offspring, resulting in brain and nervous system damage as well as reduced sperm in male offspring. This is of concern because titanium dioxide is one of the most widely used nanoparticles, found in cosmetics, sunscreens, food packaging, paints, wall coatings, dirt repellant coatings for windows and car coatings.

Factories that use this technology expose people to a greater amount of nanoparticles than one would typically encounter in the use of a product. It stands to reason, however, that if these particles are safe then that should not pose a problem, right?

Well, word of advice, if you plan to work in a manufacturing facility that uses nanoparticles, consider holding your breath. Nanoparticles in a paint factory in China were linked to the deaths of two women, and another five were left with permanent lung damage according to a Reuters report. The women had worked in the factory for 5 to 13 months. English biophysicist Dr. Mae-Wan Ho wrote in an Institute of Science in Society report that these first cases of "suspected nanotoxicity" reinforced concerns that nanotechnology is racing ahead in an unregulated market despite mounting evidence that many nanoingredients are toxic. What! Corporate profits ahead of public safety? Nooooooooooo! 

So in a world filled with all sorts of things that make it hard to relax, we now have a new army of tiny invaders that could do great things for society—or not. This should make any responsible citizen want to spring into action.

But popular literature tells us not to sweat the small stuff, so I think I’ll just go take a nap.

Postscript: To see a small sample of products made with nanosilver, go to:  For a more complete list, go to Not all products listed are available in the U.S.

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