No, No, Nano: Micro Materials Could Pose Health Risks

nanometer scale photo

Full Illustration of Article, complete with lame hockey rink analogy

A new Canadian study looks at the risks of engineered nanomaterials, and raises serious concerns. According to Martin Mittelstaedt in the Globe and Mail, the Council of Canadian Academies was asked by Health Canada to "study the state of knowledge about these novel substances and the regulatory changes needed to oversee their use. They concluded that "there are inadequate data to inform quantitative risk assessments on current and emerging nanomaterials." Their small size, the report says, may allow them "to usurp traditional biological protective mechanisms" and, as a result, possibly have "enhanced toxicological effects."

About 517 different products containing nanomaterials, ranging from suncreens to tennis racquets, have been admitted to Canada from the United States. Dr. Pekka Sinervo, Chair of the study, says "One can argue fairly strongly that some of those products probably should be looked at on a going-forward basis. It's a new technology. We are concerned." From the Globe and Mail:

"Scientists have been able to fashion these new substances by assembling them almost atom by atom, creating materials that have properties unlike the larger chunks of the matter from which they're made - much like a diamond and pencil graphite are both composed of carbon but have entirely different properties.

Nanomaterials in sunscreen

One example is titanium dioxide used in sunscreen. Nanoparticles of the material, engineered to have crystal structure, allow visible light to pass through them, but they also absorb ultraviolet light, making them ideal as the active ingredient in sunscreens. Titanium dioxide in a bulk form has a completely different attribute: It is used as the intense white pigment in paint.

Dr. Sinervo said sunscreens have been used for years without adverse human health impacts, suggesting they are harmless to people while reducing the risks of skin cancer.

But the issue of nanoparticles' overall impact on the environment is still under review. Researchers at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., for instance, are currently investigating the effects of sunscreens when they get into water, trying to determine if they harm algae, amphibians or fish. They don't expect to complete their research until 2010." ::Globe and Mail
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