The committee has focused on a common type of nanoparticle called nanotubes, noting that when they have “similar characteristics as some types of hazardous asbestos…similar inflammatory reactions can be induced by the nanotubes as asbestos.”
By Keith Nuthall
European scientists are starting to identify tangible health concerns associated with the use of nanoparticles in consumer products. Academic health experts within the European Union’s scientific committee on emerging and newly identified health risks have raised some serious problems in a new detailed paper.
It represents a hardening of concerns: while the committee has previously highlighted the lack of knowledge about how nanoparticles could migrate from clothing and their dyes into consumers’ bodies, it is now raising tangible fears.
The committee’s chair is Professor Jim Bridges, of Britain’s University of Surrey, and its vice-chair is Dr Wim De Jong, toxicological pathologist in the Laboratory of Pathology and Immunobiology at the Netherlands National Institute of Public Health and the Environment.
In particular, the committee has focused on a common type of nanoparticle called nanotubes, noting that when they have “similar characteristics as some types of hazardous asbestos…similar inflammatory reactions can be induced by the nanotubes as asbestos.”
This threat is serious because a wide range of industries – from food packagers to pharmaceutical companies, textile manufacturers and paint makers – have been examining the potential benefits of using tiny nanoparticles to improve the quality and physical characteristics of their products.
Research in this area has been booming and the commercial spin-offs could be very profitable. However the fly in the ointment is health. As with genetically modified plants there are potential health concerns and a very real risk that consumer fears could stymie the development of products using nanoparticles.
For the committee, however, it is the science that counts. It notes that nanotubes, a common form of nanoparticle, could be manufactured into “long thin fibrous forms (length >20 micrometre), rigidity, and non-degradability”, in which case they really would resemble asbestos fibres.
If these were then inhaled – say in a factory manufacturing or processing nanoparticles – then a risk of mesothelioma (the cancer usually caused by asbestos) cannot be excluded, the committee paper noted. It also raised concern about nanosilver which has been developed for use as a biocide in products such as self-cleaning socks.
Here the report highlighted a toxicity study where an “accumulation of silver was observed in all organs examined, that is, in the blood, brain, kidneys, liver, lungs, stomach and testes.