For almost two years, molecular biologist Bénédicte Trouiller doused the drinking water of scores of lab mice with nano-titanium dioxide, the most common nanomaterial used in consumer products today.
She knew that earlier studies conducted in test tubes and petri dishes had shown the same particle could cause disease. But her tests at a lab at UCLA’s School of Public Health were in vivo — conducted in living organisms — and thus regarded by some scientists as more relevant in assessing potential human harm.
Halfway through, Trouiller became alarmed: Consuming the nano-titanium dioxide was damaging or destroying the animals’ DNA and chromosomes. The biological havoc continued as she repeated the studies again and again. It was a significant finding: The degrees of DNA damage and genetic instability that the 32-year-old investigator documented can be “linked to all the big killers of man, namely cancer, heart disease, neurological disease and aging,” says Professor Robert Schiestl, a genetic toxicologist who ran the lab at UCLA’s School of Public Health where Trouiller did her research.
Nano-titanium dioxide is so pervasive that the Environmental Working Group says it has calculated that close to 10,000 over-the-counter products use it in one form or another. Other public health specialists put the number even higher. It’s “in everything from medicine capsules and nutritional supplements, to food icing and additives, to skin creams, oils and toothpaste,” Schiestl says. He adds that at least 2 million pounds of nanosized titanium dioxide are produced and used in the U.S. each year.
What’s more, the particles Trouiller gave the mice to drink are just one of an endless number of engineered, atom-size structures that have been or can be made. And a number of those nanomaterials have also been shown in published, peer-reviewed studies (more than 170 from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health alone) to potentially cause harm as well. Researchers have found, for instance, that carbon nanotubes — widely used in many industrial applications — can penetrate the lungs more deeply than asbestos and appear to cause asbestos-like, often-fatal damage more rapidly. Other nanoparticles, especially those composed of metal-chemical combinations, can cause cancer and birth defects; lead to harmful buildups in the circulatory system; and damage the heart, liver and other organs of lab animals.
Yet despite those findings, most federal agencies are doing little to nothing to ensure public safety. Consumers have virtually no way of knowing whether the products they purchase contain nanomaterials, as under current U.S. laws it is completely up to manufacturers what to put on their labels. And hundreds of interviews conducted by AOL News’ senior public health correspondent over the past 15 months make it clear that movement in the government’s efforts to institute safety rules and regulations for use of nanomaterials is often as flat as the read-out on a snowman’s heart monitor.
“How long should the public have to wait before the government takes protective action?” says Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety. “Must the bodies stack up first?”
Big Promise Comes With Potential Perils
“Nano” comes from the Greek word for dwarf, though that falls short of conveying the true scale of this new world: Draw a line 1 inch long, and 25 million nanoparticles can fit between its beginning and end.
Apart from the materials’ size, everything about nanotechnology is huge. According to the federal government and investment analysts, more than 1,300 U.S. businesses and universities are involved in related research and development. The National Science Foundation says that $60 billion to $70 billion of nano-containing products are sold in this country annually, with the majority going to the energy and electronics industries.