Health risks and environmental issues There is growing body of scientific evidence which demonstrates the potential for some nanomaterials to be toxic to humans or the environment. The smaller a particle, the greater its surface area to volume ratio and the higher its chemical reactivity and biological activity.
The greater chemical reactivity of nanomaterials results in increased production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), including free radicals. ROS production has been found in a diverse range of nanomaterials including carbon fullerenes, carbon nanotubes and nanoparticle metal oxides. ROS and free radical production is one of the primary mechanisms of nanoparticle toxicity; it may result in oxidative stress, inflammation, and consequent damage to proteins, membranes and DNA . The extremely small size of nanomaterials also means that they are much more readily taken up by the human body than larger sized particles.
Nanomaterials are able to cross biological membranes and access cells, tissues and organs that larger-sized particles normally cannot . Nanomaterials can gain access to the blood stream following inhalation or ingestion . At least some nanomaterials can penetrate the skin ; even larger microparticles may penetrate skin when it is flexed . Broken skin is an ineffective particle barrier , suggesting that acne, eczema, shaving wounds or severe sunburn may enable skin uptake of nanomaterials more readily.
Once in the blood stream, nanomaterials can be transported around the body and are taken up by organs and tissues including the brain, heart, liver, kidneys, spleen, bone marrow and nervous system . Nanomaterials have proved toxic to human tissue and cell cultures, resulting in increased oxidative stress, inflammatory cytokine production and cell death. Unlike larger particles, nanomaterials may be taken up by cell mitochondria and the cell nucleus . Studies demonstrate the potential for nanomaterials to cause DNA mutation and induce major structural damage to mitochondria, even resulting in cell death. Size is therefore a key factor in determining the potential toxicity of a particle. However it is not the only important factor.
Other properties of nanomaterials that influence toxicity include: chemical composition, shape, surface structure, surface charge, aggregation and solubility , and the presence or absence of functional groups of other chemicals . The large number of variables influencing toxicity means that it is difficult to generalise about health risks associated with exposure to nanomaterials – each new nanomaterial must be assessed individually and all material properties must be taken into account.
In its seminal 2004 report Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties, the United Kingdom's Royal Society recommended that nanomaterials be regulated as new chemicals, that research laboratories and factories treat nanomaterials "as if they were hazardous", that release of nanomaterials into the environment be avoided as far as possible, and that products containing nanomaterials be subject to new safety testing requirements prior to their commercial release. Yet regulations world-wide still fail to distinguish between materials in their nanoscale and bulk form.
This means that nanomaterials remain effectively unregulated; there is no regulatory requirement for nanomaterials to face new health and safety testing or environmental impact assessment prior to their use in commercial products, if these materials have already been approved in bulk form. The health risks of nanomaterials are of particular concern for workers who may face occupational exposure to nanomaterials at higher levels, and on a more routine basis, than the general public. According to the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology which describe themselves as "boosters for safe use of nanotechnology"
Molecular manufacturing allows the cheap creation of incredibly powerful devices and products. How many of these products will we want? What environmental damage will they do? The range of possible damage is vast, from personal low-flying supersonic aircraft injuring large numbers of animals to collection of solar energy on a sufficiently large scale to modify the planet's albedo and directly affect the environment. Stronger materials will allow the creation of much larger machines, capable of excavating or otherwise destroying large areas of the planet at a greatly accelerated pace.
It is too early to tell whether there will be economic incentive to do this. However, given the large number of activities and purposes that would damage the environment if taken to extremes, and the ease of taking them to extremes with molecular manufacturing, it seems likely that this problem is worth worrying about. Some forms of damage can result from an aggregate of individual actions, each almost harmless by itself. Such damage is quite hard to prevent by persuasion, and laws frequently don't work either; centralized restriction on the technology itself may be a necessary part of the solution.
Finally, the extreme compactness of nanomanufactured machinery will tempt the use of very small products, which can easily turn into nano-litter that will be hard to clean up and may cause health problems . The site list numerous other risks and benefits.
The International Council on Nanotechnology maintains a database and Virtual Journal of scientific papers on environmental, health and safety research on nanoparticles. The database currently has over 2000 entries indexed by particle type, exposure pathway and other criteria. The Project On Emerging Nanotechnologies currently lists 502 products that manufacturers have voluntarily identified that use nanotechnology . No labeling is required by the FDA so that number could be significantly higher.
The ongoing debate over nanofood safety and regulations has slowed the introduction of nanofood products, but research and development continue to thrive - though, interestingly, most of the larger companies are keeping their activities quiet (when you search for the term 'nano' or nanotechnology' on the websites of Kraft, Nestle, Heinz and Altria you get exactly zero results). Although the risks associated with nanotechnology in other areas, such as cosmetics and medicine, are equally blurry, it seems the difference is that the public is far less apt to jump on the nanotechnology bandwagon when it comes to their food supply Nanotechnology food coming to a fridge near you.
Recently "a broad international coalition of consumer, public health, environmental, labor, and civil society organizations spanning six continents called for strong, comprehensive oversight of the new technology and its products" according to the International Center for Technology Assessment in its report Principles for the Oversight of Nanotechnologies and Nanomaterials.
Hundreds of consumer products incorporating nanomaterials are now on the market, including cosmetics, sunscreens, sporting goods, clothing, electronics, baby and infant products, and food and food packaging. But evidence indicates that current nanomaterials may pose significant health, safety, and environmental hazards. In addition, the profound social, economic, and ethical challenges posed by nano-scale technologies have yet to be addressed ... 'Since there is currently no government oversight and no labeling requirements for nano-products anywhere in the world, no one knows when they are exposed to potential nanotech risks and no one is monitoring for potential health or environmental harm. That's why we believe oversight action based on our principles is urgent' ... This industrial boom is creating a growing nano-workforce which is predicted to reach two million globally by 2015. 'Even though potential health hazards stemming from exposure have been clearly identified, there are no mandatory workplace measures that require exposures to be assessed, workers to be trained, or control measures to be implemented,' explained Bill Kojola of the AFL-CIO. 'This technology should not be rushed to market until these failings are corrected and workers assured of their safety'
The group has urged action based on eight principles. They are 1) A Precautionary Foundation 2) Mandatory Nano-specific Regulations 3) Health and Safety of the Public and Workers 4) Environmental Protection 5) Transparency 6) Public Participation 7) Inclusion of Broader Impacts and 8) Manufacturer Liability.