When nanotech turns nanotoxic

A 26-year-old chemist creating polymers and coatings with ingredients that included nanoparticles of nickel developed nasal congestion and facial flushing as well as temporary allergies to her earrings and belt buckle, a new report has found. She had to leave her job and could not even return to the building because her symptoms would start again, according to a May 12 article in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

This is the first reported case of illness from exposure to nanoparticles -- and it may not be the last. According to a co-author of the paper, the widely popular technology could prove to be a new health hazard, with unknown risks and uncertainty about how to protect workers -- and possibly consumers.

"This is case one in our modern economy," said Dr. W. Shane Journeay, a nanotoxicology expert and co-author of the study, in an interview with CBS MoneyWatch.

Nanotechnology -- the creation and use of substances whose ultra-small size makes the word microscopic seem huge by comparison -- has transformed a wide variety of industries. Nanoparticles are tiny pieces of often common materials whose chemical natures and reactions change because of the small size. The altered properties can lead to new applications in such industries as solar energy, paint, and cosmetics.

Take silver. The metal has long been known as possessing antibacterial characteristics. Creating nanoparticles of silver heighten those characteristics, according to Journeay. Medical personnel use them on wound dressings in battlefields and in hospitals. Nanoparticles of gold are under study by the National Institutes of Health for potential use in battling cancer.

But nanoparticles can exhibit more dangerous effects as well. According to Journeay, titanium dioxide -- a white pigment in many paints and coatings and often an ingredient in sunscreen -- has two different hazard classifications: one for the normal powder form and another for nanoparticles. The latter are have been rated by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as more likely to create cancer.

Research into the health effects of the new materials is sketchy. There are too many new materials being created for medical researchers to monitor. Manufacturers rarely can find any information on the new formations and so are working blind. Single-walled carbon nanotubes have been have received their own exposure limits from NIOSH, but there are other types of carbon nanotubes that have yet to be rated.

That is not only a potential problem for workers, but for consumers. For example, titanium dioxide nanoparticles appear in some sunscreens because they can form an invisible barrier, rather than a white coating. If the nanoparticles stay on the surface of the skin, there shouldn't be a problem. But no one can be sure that some particles could not work loose and somehow enter the skin. If they did, no one knows the likely health implications. Such information is not part of standard toxicology.

In the case of the chemist featured in the new report, the woman was weighing and measuring nanoparticles of nickel on a lab bench without any protective measures. It would be easy to say that a mask, at least, would have been a good idea, but this is another problem with nanoparticles. Journeay said that existing masks filter out nanoparticles but could be prone to leaks, allowing particles to enter the lungs or eyes.

And then there are the cost implications of a "compensable injury," according to Journeay. "A skin rash, on average is a $4,000 to $5,000 per claim."

Unfortunately, the chemical genie is out of the bottle and safety concerns will have to catch up to rampant commercialization and manufacturing of products using nanoparticles.

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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