Mother should care about nanomaterials

All moms want the best for their babies. They seek the newest pacifiers and milk bottles for their newborns and give them plushy stuffed animals to play and sleep with. They look for the most protective sunscreen. And they’re sure to be tempted by products like Nanover Wet Wipes, which boasts an ingredient that prevent the multiplication or growth of those fungi and bacteria, also know as the cause itchiness, infection, odor, and sores. But what mothers probably do not know is that many of those products contain materials made from nanotechnology, the process of manipulating and manufacturing matter at the tiniest of levels. (Three to six atoms can fit inside one nanometer.) And what they almost certainly do not know is that nanomaterials may be toxic.

In fact, scientists cannot say for sure just what happens when humans, especially developing children, breathe, absorb, or ingest engineered nanomaterials. They don’t know where they go in the body, what they do when they’re in there, or what their health impacts are. But some of what is known is ominous.

One early study, for example, showed that nanomaterials can cross the blood-brain barrier between the olfactory bulb and the brain. No one knows if they can cross the placental-blood barrier that protects a developing fetus’s blood from its mother’s.

In an essay in an upcoming edition of the Handbook on Children’s Environmental Health , published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Philip Landrigan distills the potential health threats. “Nanoparticles may be able to produce toxic effects as a consequence of their ability to enter cells,” the director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine writes.

Two researchers from Brown University noted that carbon nanotubes injected into mice in separate studies in England and Japan produced biological parallels to asbestos. The Japanese study found that a greater percentage of mice injected with carbon nanotubes developed tumors and lesions and scarring in the mesothelial lining than did mice injected with a particularly potent form of asbestos.

David Rejeski runs the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies in Washington, D.C. His organization maintains an online inventory of nanotech products. His “Goods for Children” category includes toothbrushes, wet wipes, pacifiers, milk bottles, and stuffed animals.

Rejeski says the first inventory released in March 2006 listed 212 products that claimed to have nanomaterials in them. By 2008 the total climbed to 803. Data just released in August puts it at 1,015. Inventoried products include cosmetics, sunscreens, food supplements, tennis racquets, eyeglasses, batteries, and medical devices produced in twenty-four countries.

The 2006 list reported no products under “Goods for Children”; last year’s update included nearly two dozen (with 2009 remaining at the same level), most of which are produced in China, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.

Driving the growth in nano children’s goods has been a surge in products containing nano-scale silver, which is engineered for its anti-bacterial properties. In the Project on Emerging Technologies’ inventory, silver, a potentially dangerous toxin for humans and ecosystems, is now number one, accounting for 26 percent of all nano products.

Indeed, many of the nearly two dozen goods for children on the project’s inventory make claims similar to the Silver Nano Baby Milk Bottle, 99.9% of germs are prevented, and they maintain deodorizing function, anti-bacteria, as well as freshness. The inventory’s “general clothing” category includes socks, shirts, pants, swimsuits, shoe inserts, ties, and gloves. One manufacturer of “luxury base-layer apparel” (upscale underwear) says consumers can “sweat in style” thanks to the nanosilver blended into its garments’ fibers.

But using water-soluble nanosilver as a disinfectant carries with it environmental threats beyond human health. Since 2003, when Samsung introduced a washing machine that injects nanosilver into the wash cycle, wastewater treatment plant operators have warned that their systems could be destabilized as a result. In a March letter to the EPA, the Bay Area Clean Water Agencies, which represents fifty-five public utilities, warned that while “nitrification” is critical to biological nutrient removal, two related studies “found that nanosilver particles less than 5 nanometers in diameter are uniquely toxic to nitrifying bacteria.”

As in the development of any new technologies, be they manufacturing processes or synthetic chemicals, workers serve as the canaries in the mines.

In the United States, workers are getting short shrift, too.

“It’s usually the workers who get exposed first, long before consumers,” Rejeski says. “And OSHA has been fairly dysfunctional. They just haven’t been out there inspecting a lot of workplace environments for years now.” In the case of nanotechnology, exposure is most prevalent in manufacturing and university research labs. Students, he added, “are just notorious for not wanting to put on face masks and protective clothing.”

Women are by far the consumer group that receives the most exposure to nanomaterials in consumer products. The “Cosmetics” category is the second largest on the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies’ consumer product inventory, listing more than 130 lipsticks, moisturizers, cleansing gels, acne treatments, soaps, mists, and creams.
And many products in the inventory’s largest category, “Personal Care,” are also aimed at female consumers, including curling irons, makeup instruments, cuticle tenders, cleansers, and lip treatments.

But when it comes to regulatory protection, American mothers, children, and workers are pretty much on their own, according to Jennifer Kuzma, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. The EPA and the FDA have both been slow to respond to occupational and human health threats posed by nanotechnology.

An EPA interim report on its voluntary program released in January 2009 said only twenty-nine companies had submitted information on 123 types of “engineered nanoscale materials they manufacture, import, process, or use.”

Steffen Foss Hansen, who published his Ph.D. dissertation on the regulations and risks of nanomaterials, says that the European Union is in the forefront in regulating cosmetics with nanomaterials. All nano-containing cosmetics in Europe will have to be labeled from 2013 on, and producers will have to submit to the government various kinds of health and safety information. “It’s a very progressive proposal,” he says, although the legislation’s definition of nanomaterials is limited in scope and only addresses nanomaterials below 100 nanometers.

But while Europe is widely seen as the trailblazer in nano-regulation, California and Canada are leading the way in terms of mandatory reporting, Hansen says.

“They have actually asked companies that produce nanomaterials to submit health and safety information,” he says. “For me, that indicates that they’re actively doing a lot more on getting information about what these materials can do, where they’re used, and how much is produced.”

Rejeski notes that Berkeley, California, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have local ordinances that address nanotechnology. Berkeley requires mandatory reporting; Cambridge’s is voluntary. And, he adds, “EPA fined a company selling computer keyboards coated with nanosilver (a fine of $208,000) for making unsubstantiated claims about the product.”

If you are a mother, and you care about your child health, you should prudent avoidance to use nanomaterials. And if you have time, you should use traditional toys, cook for your family, use the proper nutrition for your children. If you don’t know how to do it, you should take a look at Joscelyn Booker’s blog name You da Mom at

She is an expert about child care, parenting and family life. And she is a mother, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *