Organic Consumers Association


Previous Page

Click here to print this page

Make a Donation!


NanoParticles Shown to Cause Brain Damage

Thursday, 1 April 2004

Nano's Troubled Waters:
Latest toxic warning shows nanoparticles cause brain damage in aquatic
species and highlights need for a moratorium on the release of new

A new study revealing that engineered carbon molecules known as
"buckyballs" cause brain damage in fish is one more brick in the wall of
evidence suggesting that manufactured nanoparticles are harmful to the
environment and to health. The results of the study highlight the urgency
to heed ETC Group's 2002 call for a moratorium on manufactured
nanoparticles in commercial products and they back up last month's
recommendation by the Institut für ökologische Wirtschaftforschung - in a
report commissioned by the European Parliament - that nanoparticles should
not be released into the environment.(1) Recent scientific studies have
raised serious concerns about the toxicity of nanoparticles (see "Ten Toxic
Warnings," below). This latest study, which has yet to be published, is
the first to simulate what could happen when nanoparticles are released
into the environment.

How many warnings do government regulators require before they take action
to ensure that uses of nanoparticles are safe before workers in production
facilities are harmed and before consumers are further exposed?

At the American Chemical Society's national meeting last week in Anaheim,
California, environmental toxicologist Dr. Eva Oberdörster described what
happened when she exposed nine largemouth bass to water containing
buckyballs at concentrations of 500 parts per billion. (The concentration
level is comparable to pollutant levels commonly found in port waters.)
After only 48 hours, the researchers found "severe" damage to brain tissue
in the form of "lipid peroxidation," a condition leading to the destruction
of cell membranes, which has been linked, in humans, to illnesses such as
Alzheimer's disease. Researchers also found chemical markers in the liver
indicating inflammation, which suggested a full-body response to the
buckyball exposure.(2)

Manufactured nanoparticles, measuring a few billionths of a meter, are
already used in commercial products ranging from anti-aging creams to
sunblocks to car bodies to tennis racquets. Buckyballs - the soccer-ball
shaped molecules of carbon touted as "miracle molecules" because of their
unusual chemical properties - are considered especially promising for
applications in drug delivery and cosmetics as well as fuel cells and solar
cells. Buckyballs have not yet been incorporated into commercial products.
The high cost of their manufacture has been considered the biggest barrier
to commercialization, but the price of a gram of buckyballs is dropping
precipitously - from several hundred (US) dollars to $20 dollars and
manufacturers predict the price will drop even further to 50 cents per
gram.(3) It is hard to know how many buckyballs have been manufactured
since their discovery in 1985, but one company in Japan called Frontier
Carbon (a joint venture of Mitsubishi Corporation and Mitsubishi Chemical)
is operating a facility with a production capacity of 40 metric tons per
year. The company says it has 300 buyers for its fullerenes (the chemical
family name of buckyballs).(4)

Regarding the results of her buckyball toxicity study, Dr. Oberdörster
warns, "Given the rapid onset of brain damage, it is important to further
test and assess the risks and benefits of this new technology before use
becomes even more widespread." Though it is known that nanoparticles can
cross the blood/brain barrier in humans, it is not yet known whether they
will cause the kind of damage found in Oberdörster's fish.

In a separate experiment, Oberdörster found that buckyballs are also toxic
to "water fleas" - in buckyball-tainted water, half the water flea
population was dead in two days. (According to Oberdörster, that means
buckyballs are "moderately toxic" to water fleas, more toxic than nickel,
but less toxic than copper.[5]) Because water fleas (crustaceans a few
millimeters long) are a food source for other aquatic species, Oberdörster
expressed concern that nanoparticles could begin to accumulate throughout
the food chain, affecting not just fish, but plants and other animals,
including people.(6) Both largemouth bass and water fleas are standard
test species for aquatic toxicity.

Though the market for nanoparticles will approach one billion dollars next
year, neither government regulations nor labeling requirements exist in any
country. Because nanoparticles are composed of elements and compounds
whose toxicity is well-studied at larger scales, they have been assumed
safe even though they can exhibit wildly different properties from their
larger siblings.

With regard to her findings, Dr. Oberdörster said that "this is a yellow
light, not a red one."(7) Presumably, she believes that the potential for
safe applications of nanoparticles still exists, but that commercialization
should proceed cautiously until scientific toxicological data catch up to
the technology. ETC Group agrees that a yellow light is in order and, once
more, urges regulators and international policymakers to move swiftly and
responsibly to place a moratorium on the release of new nanoparticles into
the environment until lab protocols can be established and until toxicology
studies can be undertaken and their results verified. Many nano-proponents
insist that modifications can be made to the particles - such as coating
them - to ensure that they are safely biocompatible. While this is
theoretically possible, there is no independent body to assess the
modifications nor any regulations to prevent manufacturers from using
unmodified nanoparticles. The situation is made more complicated by most
manufacturers' unwillingness to share their own safety studies with the
public or with competitors.

Close-to-market applications for nanoparticles are wide-ranging and many
involve the release of nanoparticles in water or in soil. One company,
Altair Nanotechnologies, currently seeks to market a nanoparticle-based
product that will be used to clean water at industrial fish farms and in
swimming pools. Clear Spring Foods, an aquaculture company that farms
around a third of US trout production, has been carrying out tests for
nanoparticle-based vaccine delivery. The DNA vaccine in nanoparticle form
would be added to fish ponds and then activated by ultrasound to inoculate
trout. Meanwhile, reports from Kyoto in Japan show that scientists are
experimenting with using buckyballs for agricultural fertilizer. Fertilizer
runoff is already a major pollutant of water ways.

The international community must formulate a legally-binding mechanism to
govern the products of new technologies, based on the Precautionary
Principle, one that addresses their health, socio-economic and
environmental implications. International assessment should be
incorporated under a new International Convention for the Evaluation of New
Technologies (ICENT). The issues of nanoparticle toxicity and environmental
release should be on the radar screens of civil society and peoples'
organizations, as well as intergovernmental agencies. ETC Group has been in
touch with the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF,
Chennai, India), which monitors issues related to the livelihood of
small-scale fishworkers around the world. ICSF is already monitoring the
issue of nanoparticle toxicity. ETC Group has also contacted the World
Fish Center based in Penang, Malaysia, which is part of the international
network of research centers known as CGIAR (Consultative Group on
International Agricultural Research). The issue of nanoparticle toxicity
should be urgently considered by the Oslo Paris Convention for the
Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR),
whose Hazardous Substances Committee meets next month in Wismar, Germany.

The following list is not exhaustive, but includes some of the biggest,
reddest flags on the issue of engineered nanoparticle safety:

Ten Toxic Warnings

1. 1997 - Titanium dioxide/zinc oxide nanoparticles from sunscreen are
found to cause free radicals in skin cells, damaging DNA. (Oxford
University and Montreal University) Dunford, Salinaro et al.(8)

2. March 2002 - Researchers from the Center for Biological and
Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN, Rice University, Houston) report to US
EPA that engineered nanoparticles accumulate in the organs of lab animals
and are taken up by cells. "We know that nanomaterials have been taken up
by cells. That sets off alarms. If bacteria can take them up then we have
an entry point for nanomaterials into the food chain." - Dr. Mark Wiesner(9)

3. March 2003 - Researchers from NASA/Johnson Space Center report that
studies on effects of nanotubes on the lungs of rats produced more toxic
response than quartz dust. Scientists from DuPont Haskell laboratory
present varying but still worrying findings on nanotube toxicity. "The
message is clear. People should take precautions. Nanotubes can be highly
toxic." - Dr. Robert Hunter (NASA researcher)(10)

4. March 2003 - ETC group publishes first scientific literature survey on
nanoparticle toxicity by toxicopathologist Vyvyan Howard. Dr. Howard
concludes that the smaller the particle, the higher its likely toxicity and
that nanoparticles have various routes into the body and across membranes
such as the blood brain barrier. "Full hazard assessments should be
performed to establish the safety of species of particle before
manufacturing is licensed. We are dealing with a potentially hazardous
process." - Dr. Vyvyan Howard(11)

5. July 2003 - Nature reports on work by CBEN scientist Mason Tomson that
shows buckyballs can travel unhindered through the soil. "Unpublished
studies by the team show that the nanoparticles could easily be absorbed by
earthworms, possibly allowing them to move up the food-chain and reach
humans" - Dr. Vicki Colvin, the Center's director(12)

6. January 2004 - Research by Dr. Günter Oberdörster is published showing
that nanoparticles are able to move easily from the nasal passageway to the
brain. "The nanotechnology revolution may design particles that are very
different chemically from the ones we are exposed to, and they might have
very different properties that made them more harmful. We should be
vigilant." - Professor Ken Donaldson, University of Edinburgh(13)

7. January 2004 - Nanosafety researchers from University of Leuven,
Belgium, write in Nature that nanoparticles will require new toxicity
tests: "We consider that producers of nanomaterials have a duty to provide
relevant toxicity test results for any new material, according to
prevailing international guidelines on risk assessment. Even some 'old'
chemical agents may need to be reassessed if their physical state is
substantially different from that which existed when they were assessed
initially."- Peter H. M. Hoet, Abderrrahim Nemmar and Benoit Nemery,
University of Belgium(14)

8. January 2004 - At the first scientific conference on nanotoxicity,
Nanotox 2004, Dr. Vyvyan Howard presents initial findings that gold
nanoparticles can move across the placenta from mother to fetus.(15)

9. February 2004 - Scientists at University of California, San Diego
discover that cadmium selenide nanoparticles (quantum dots) can break down
in the human body potentially causing cadmium poisoning. "This is probably
something the [research] community doesn't want to hear." - Mike Sailor, UC
San Diego.(16)

10. March 2004 - Dr. Eva Oberdörster reports to American Chemical Society
meeting that buckyballs cause brain damage in juvenile fish along with
changes in gene function. They also are toxic to small crustaceans (water
fleas). "Given the rapid onset of brain damage, it is important to further
test and assess the risks and benefits of this new technology before use
becomes even more widespread." - Dr. Eva Oberdörster.(17)

(1) Haum, Petschow, Steinfeldt, Nanotechnology and Regulation within the
framework of the Precautionary Principle. Final Report for ITRE Committeee
of the European Parliament. Institut für ökologische Wirstschaftforschung
(IÖW) gGmbH, Berlin, 11 February 2004. ETC Group's call for a moratorium on
nanotechnology consists of a temporary cessation of lab research and
commercialization of new products until national governments, in
conjunction with their scientific community, can establish a reviewable
"best practices" protocol.
(2) Mark T. Sampson, "Type of buckyball shown to cause brain damage in
fish," Eurekalert, March 28, 2004. Available on the Internet,
(3) Scott Kirsner, "Nanotech, biotech at key juncture," The Boston Globe,
March 22, 2004.
(4) Matt Kelly, "Fullerenes Flourish, and Nano-C can make them by the ton,"
Small Times, 27 October 2003. Available on the Internet,
(5) Rick Weiss, "Nanoparticles Toxic in Aquatic Habitat, Study Finds,"
March 29, 2004.
(6) Mark T. Sampson, "Type of buckyball shown to cause brain damage in
fish," Eurekalert, March 28, 2004. Available on the Internet,
(7) Barnaby J. Feder, "Health Concerns in Nanotechnology," The New York
Times, March 29, 2004.
(8) Dunford, Salinaro et al. "Chemical oxidation and DNA damage catalysed
by inorganic sunscreen ingredients," FEBS Letters , volume 418, no. 1-2, 24
November 1997, pp. 87-90.
(9) Doug Brown, "Nano litterbugs? Experts See Potential Pollution
Problems," Small Times March 15, 2002. Available on the Internet,
(10) Jenny Hogan, "How safe is nanotech?" Special Report on Nano
Pollution, New Scientist, Vol. 177, No. 2388, 29 March 2003, p. 14.
(11) ETC Group, "Size Matters! The Case for a Global Moratorium,"
Occasional Paper Series, Volume 7, no. 1, April 2003. Available on the
(12) Geoff Brumfiel, "A Little Knowledge...," Nature, Vol. 424, no. 6946,
17 July 2003, p. 246.
(13) Alex Kirby, "Tiny Particles Threaten Brain," BBC News Online, 8
January, 2004. Available on the Internet,
(14) Peter Hoet, Abderrahim Nemmar and Benoit Nemery, "Health Impact of
Nanomaterials?" Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 22, no.1, January 2004, p. 19.
(15) Ben Wootliff, ""Bristish Scientist: Nanoparticles Might Move from Mom
to Fetus," Small Times, 14 January 2004. Available on the Internet,
(16) Justin Mullins, "Safety concerns over injectable quantum dots, New
Scientist, Vol. 181, No. 2436 , 28 February 2004, p. 10.
(17) Mark T. Sampson, "Type of buckyball shown to cause brain damage in
fish," Eurekalert, March 28, 2004. Available on the Internet,

The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, formerly RAFI,
is an international civil society organization headquartered in Canada. The
ETC group is dedicated to the advancement of cultural and ecological
diversity and human rights. The ETC group is also a
member of the Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation Programme
(CBDC). The CBDC is a collaborative experimental initiative involving civil
society organizations and public research institutions in 14
countries. The CBDC is dedicated to the exploration of community-directed
programmes to strengthen the conservation and enhancement of agricultural
biodiversity. The CBDC website is