In a recent interview with Prof. Martina Vijver, recently appointed Professor of Toxicology at the Leiden University, Down to Earth Magazine delves into the issue of nanoparticles and the potential risks they pose to human health.
Nanoparticles are used in a wide range of industries, from agriculture and automotive to cosmetics, electronics, medicine, and sports industries. Nanoparticles, no matter what the material, have many applications which make them invaluable in the development of products and technologies. Nonetheless, there is cause for uncertainty in the widespread use of such tiny particles, according to Professor Vijver. Particles smaller than 50 nanometers are believed to penetrate organ membranes, and there is still uncertainty as to what such substances do to our bodies, health-wise, and the environment. Could nanoparticles be the new asbestos?
In a study conducted on zebrafish, the ability of particles smaller than 50nm to penetrate the intestinal wall and accumulate in various places in the body was demonstrated. Even tinier particles, those smaller than 4 nanometers, are believed to be able to penetrate the skin. The ability of such small particles to pierce certain bodily barriers means that they may make their way into pores, lungs, and the alveoli (tiny sacs of air within the lungs), causing unknown health effects. Extremely small particles can pass through membranes that are not meant to be penetrated, leading to uncertainty about how our bodies will react and respond to the presence of new substances deep within the body’s systems and potentially, its organs.
First steps in implementing
Banning the use of microparticles in various materials doesn’t seem to be the solution. It would be impossible and would probably hinder development in many critical. These substances have also been on the market for quite some time already, but better regulation is needed – in this way, industries can keep making use of the unique advantages microparticles have to offer while ensuring human and environmental safety. The first step in implementing more effective regulations is to garner a better understanding of the effects of nanoparticles compared to larger particles of the same materials. Professor Vijver expects that scientists will have a better understanding of this issue in 1-2 years. What we know now, however, is that the size and shape of nanoparticles do matter. Vijver advises producers to use where possible particles larger than 50 nanometers, which are less likely to enter the smallest parts of our bodies (although it should be noted that larger particles will degrade and become smaller over time). Vijver furthermore advises manufacturers to where possible make spherical rather than needle-like shapes. This way, industries would use nanoparticles that are less likely to cause inflammatory reactions in the body or to pass through membranes .
Until regulation is developed and widespread, Professor Vijver recommends producers and university labs that work with nanoparticles to employ toxicologists. People who are in close contact with these materials should know how to protect themselves; it all starts with research and development, which will make it easier to prevent unsafe products from entering the market.
Nanoparticles are the new asbestos. Unlike asbestos however, they can’t be removed from the environment. For now, all we can do is to encourage the safe and informed production of nanoparticles through scientific research on their toxicological effects.