Per this article in Fortune, Nanoparticles “touch nearly every Fortune 500 company and aspect of our lives”; the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies estimates that it’s $20 billion industry.
Nanoparticle are between 1 and 100 nanometers in size (a billionth of a meter). They’re not particularly well understood but they’re present all around us in the environment – and in many of the products we buy and ingest. The interesting and sometimes unexpected properties of nanoparticles stem from the large surface area of the material relative to their overall size.
They’re not a new discovery – nanoparticles were used by artisans as far back as the ninth century in Mesopotamia for generating a glittering effect on the surface of pots. In 1857 Michael Faraday provided the first description, in scientific terms, of the optical properties of nanometer-scale metals. But their applications have changed considerably in the past few years.
Arturo Keller of the University of California, Santa Barbara has been studying nanoparticles, in particular titanium dioxide, in common products such as cosmetics, sunscreens, and lotions. It’s important to note that titanium dioxide is chemically inert and has been around humans for decades, and its practical applications includes use in joint replacements.
But at the nanosize, per Dr. Keller’s research the particles “can also cross the blood-brain barrier or enter cells and destroy genetic material,” leading to increased rates of cancer, heart disease, and neurological disorders. The Environmental Working Group, a research organization based in Washington, D.C., estimates that nano titanium dioxide is in about 10,000 over-the-counter products, including food, a trend which started over a decade ago.
As research such as Keller’s is completed, many companies and the US government are paying close attention to their use and safety and the FDA is discussing regulations. Their small size allows for many positive uses such as highly targeted drug delivery at the molecular level, and a more targeted delivery of pesticides to crops. As Fortune notes, “perhaps the most concerning and harmful aspect of heightened fears about nanoparticles is the potential for a broad, ill-informed backlash.” Read more…