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Tiny Nanoparticles Could Be a Big Problem

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Health Issues page, Genetic Engineering page, and our Nanotechnology & Synthetic Biology page.

Nanotechnology was supposed to revolutionize the world, making us healthier and producing cleaner energy. But it's starting to look more like a nightmare.

Nanomaterials-tiny particles as little as 1/100,000 the width of a human hair-have quietly been used since the 1990s in hundreds of everyday products, everything from food to baby bottles, pills, beer cans, computer keyboards, skin creams, shampoo, and clothes.

But after years of virtually unregulated use, scientists are now starting to say the most commonly used nanoproducts could be harming our health and the environment.

One of the most widespread nanoproducts is titanium dioxide. More than 5,000 tonnes of it are produced worldwide each year for use in food, toothpaste, cosmetics, paint, and paper (as a colouring agent), in medication and vitamin capsules (as a nonmedicinal filler), and in most sunscreens (for its anti-UV properties).

In food, titanium-dioxide nanoparticles are used as a whitener and brightener in confectionary products, cheeses, and sauces. Other nanoparticles are employed in flavourings and "nutritional" additives, and to reduce fat content in "health" foods.

In the journal Cancer Research in 2009, environmental-health professor Robert Schiestl coauthored the first comprehensive study of how titanium-dioxide nanoparticles affect the genes of live animals. Mice in his study suffered DNA and chromosomal damage after drinking water with the nanoparticles for five days.

"It should be removed from food and drugs, and there's definitely no reason for it in cosmetic products," said cancer specialist Schiestl, who is also a professor of pathology and radiation oncology at UCLA's school of medicine.

"The study shows effects [from the nanoparticles] on all kinds of genetic endpoints," Schiestl told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from his office. "All those are precursor effects of cancer. It's a wake-up call to do something."


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