Novel new technologies use extremely small particles on the nanometer scale. But some of these particles, while safe in larger groupings, have serious health consquences, as shown by current research.
The term 'nanotechnology' describes materials, systems and processes that exist or operate at the extremely small scale of a few hundred nanometres or less. To put a nanometre in context: a strand of DNA is 2.5nm wide, a red blood cell is 7,000 nm and a human hair is 80,000 nm wide.
Nanomaterials are already used in a wide range of domestic, industrial and food products such as food additives, fuel catalysts, sports goods, specialty building equipment, electronics, household appliances, sunscreens and other products. There is uncertainty regarding the health impacts of nanoparticles. Substances that pose no risks in larger particle form can be toxic when occurring as nanoparticles. Surveys show that many companies do not conduct risk assessments and there is no requirement to make public any safety data that industry does generate. In vitro studies have shown that manufactured nanoparticles, which are in widespread commercial use including zinc, zinc oxide, silver, and titanium dioxide, pose new toxicity risks. Carbon nanotubes cause asbestos-like pathogenicity and the onset of mesothelioma in test mice. A small number of clinical studies suggest that nanoparticles and small microparticles that are not metabolised can over time result in granulomas, lesions (areas of damaged cells or tissue), cancer or blood clots. There is also evidence from animal studies that some nanoparticles can cross the placenta, posing particularly significant risks to developing embryos. Some nanoparticles have been shown to be toxic to environmental organisms and to transfer across species, indicating a concerning potential for bioaccumulation.
Nanomaterials are now used in food additives, fuel catalysts, sports goods, specialty building equipment, electronics, household appliances and other products. In coming years and decades, 'next generation nanotechnology' is forecast to bring more complex nanodevices, nanosystems, and nanomachines.
See IPEN materials related to nanotechnology in our Knowledge Center.
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