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Consumer Reports says more testing, regulation needed for nanotechnology

Posted Friday, June 22, 2007

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CR investigates potential benefits, possible health and environmental risks of new technology

Yonkers, NY — Nanotechnology promises to be the most important innovation since electricity and the internal combustion engine. But some applications might pose substantial risks to human health and the environment, according to the July issue of Consumer Reports.

Nanomaterials are already being used in consumer products such as car wax, computer chips, and sunscreen and about $2.6 trillion worth of goods worldwide are expected to use nanotech by 2014, up from $50 billion in 2006.

But the risks of nanotechnology have been largely unexplored, and government and industry monitoring has been minimal. Moreover, consumers have been left in the dark, since manufacturers are not required to disclose the presence of nanomaterials in their labeling.

Nanotechnology involves creating new materials or reducing the particles in standard materials to sizes as small as a nanometer, or about 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. At this size, the characteristics of materials change, carbon becomes 100 times stronger than steel, aluminum turns highly explosive, and gold melts at room temperature, for example. New characteristics such as these can be used to bring positive changes to consumer products. But in some cases, they may make benign materials toxic and toxic ones more hazardous.

The July issue also features a report on sunscreens, involving CR’s tests of 19 products at outside labs. Eight of them listed zinc oxide or titanium dioxide on the label, which could indicate the presence of nanoparticles. A test of those 8 sunscreens found that all contained nanoparticles, but only one disclosed the presence of nano-zinc oxide. And the tests revealed no correlation between effectiveness and the presence of those ingredients.


Vast Potential vs. Possible Risks

Nanoparticles already exist in nature, as volcanic ash and tiny salt crystals in ocean breezes, for example. And people have long created hazardous nanopollutants in things like welding fumes and diesel exhaust. But now, scientists using powerful microscopes and other tools can artificially create a vast array of nanoparticles that never existed before, enabling the development of a vast array of new nanoproducts.

In health and medicine, testing is underway on nanodelivery systems that might precisely target tumors and which might improve the treatment of cancer. A filter with nanosized pores could permit creation of a wearable or implantable artificial kidney. Researchers are developing contact lenses with a color-shifting sensor that would let people with diabetes check their blood sugar just by glancing in a mirror.

Nanotech solutions might lead to clean energy sources and help protect the environment. “Intelligent” nanocoatings that reflect solar heat in summer and transmit it in the winter are already available. So are nanotech methods of removing pollutants from water supplies.

Numerous consumer products using nanotechnology may already be a part of consumers’ everyday lives. Two examples: About 60 percent of cars now have fuel lines made with carbon nanotubes, which might reduce the risk of explosions by inhibiting static electricity. And Home Depot sells Behr paint, which supposedly contains nanoingredients that resist mildew and grease stains.

Although no confirmed cases of harm to humans from manufactured nanoparticles have been reported, there is cause for concern based on several worrisome findings from the limited laboratory and animal research so far. For example:

  • Certain benign materials can become toxic when nanosized because microscopic particles tend to react more readily with human tissues and other substances.
  • Nanoparticles can enter the body and its vital organs, including the brain, much more easily than can larger particles. And some are now used in food additives, cosmetics, and other products that are ingested or applied directly to the skin.
  • Some nanomaterials seem to linger in the environment — especially in the water supply, where studies suggest they can damage the ecosystem.
  • Fullerenes, composed of spherically arranged carbon atoms used in cosmetics and other products, might damage cells in fish, and harm human liver cells and DNA.
  • Carbon nanotubes have similar fibrous shapes to asbestos and some animal studies have indicated that one type can inflame the lungs.
Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, believes that the responsibility for protecting consumers rests mainly with government and industry. In particular, CU calls for the government to provide more funds for risk research and regulation. It also calls for the FDA to assess safety information on nanoingredients in cosmetics, food additives, and other products before they’re sold and to require manufacturers to report health problems linked with those ingredients.

The full report is available in the July 2007 issue of Consumer Reports, which is available wherever magazines are sold. Portions of the story are available for free online at

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Consumer Reports says more testing, regulation needed for nanotechnology
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