Nanotechnology can be risky, but no one is regulating its use
Thanks to nanotechnology, that allows grinding particles to atomic levels, you now have face creams that spread so smoothly on your skin that only a transparent sheen is visible, no layers. While that seamless make-up is desirable, cosmetics using such finely ground particles, called nanoparticles, might not be as harmless as they are believed to be. Recent studies link them to cancer and cell death. Although nanotechnology is used in about 600 consumer products, including face creams and toothpastes, there have not been enough risk-assessment studies and regulation of their use in personal care products.
For the uninitiated, 'nano' means a billionth, and particles measured in nanometres are nanoparticles. A study published in the May 20, 2008, issue of Nature Nanotechnology showed that nanotubes, tube-shaped nanoparticles, can lead to cancer. Not long ago nanotubes were considered promising vehicles for delivering anti-tumour agents into malignant cells. Studies had even shown them to be safe because they get out of the system through excretion. Another study conducted on brain cells outside the body showed that particles of titanium dioxide, used in sunscreen lotions, could kill the cells by affecting their oxygen balance. The study was published in the November 2007 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.
There are no studies to show that nanoparticles get absorbed through skin pores but even bigger particles can enter the body through broken skin. Some studies show that even unbroken skin when flexed, like in wrist movements, will make the outer layer of the skin permeable to nano-sized particles.
If cosmetics using nanoparticles harm health, it will not be easy to detect. Products using nanoparticles do not mention it on their packaging and their adverse effects are rarely reported. This despite the fact that the global market for nanotechnology is likely to touch us $1 trillion by 2015. In the us, cosmetic products are not subject to pre-market approval, nor are they subject to mandatory reporting of adverse events. "We are not aware of any reports of cosmetic products using nanotechnology in our Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition-Adverse Event Monitoring System (a database in which adverse events are reported)," says Stephanie Kwisnek, press office, Food and Drug Administration, us. But several skin care and anti-ageing products use nanotechnology.
Manufacturers of skin care products defend the use of nanoparticles. "In sunscreen lotions, nano titanium dioxide is present in large clusters ranging in size from 300 nanometre to 600 nanometre. Studies conducted within the European Union guidelines have shown that nanopigments do not cross the skin barrier, even in cases of acne and psoriasis," says the consumer affairs coordinator of the L'Oral Group.
A consumer relations representative from Procter & Gamble even claims health benefits, saying that nanoparticles used in sunscreen lotions provide protection against harmful effects of the sun, including skin cancer. But there is no evidence of sunscreens reducing cancer risks.
"Debates without scientific data will only delay the technology from achieving its full potential. It's important that the negative aspects of this technology be fully analyzed, instead of drawing hypothetical conclusions," says Rahul Patwardhan, vice-chairman and managing director, IndiaCo Ventures, a financial services company that has pioneered the nanotechnology initiative through the Nanotechnology Research Foundation. "The risk assessment will have to be a unified effort by the scientific and the corporate world. This is especially difficult in India, for it is difficult to find a common platform," adds Patwardhan.
In March 2008, an eu scientific committee concluded that risk-assessment methods for nanomaterial used in cosmetics were not thorough enough. It pointed out that there was inadequate information on how nanoparticles are absorbed in the body through skin and how they could be transported to the foetus through the placenta. The committee suggested better risk-assessment methods and strict regulation.
To regulate the use of nanoparticles it is necessary to distinguish them from their bigger versions. It is yet to be decided whether a nanoparticle should be treated as a new substance.
Regulation of nanotechnology in India is still at a nascent stage. In March 2007, the Bureau of Indian Standards (bis) constituted a special committee to deal with nanotechnology under the chairmanship of Vikram Kumar, director, National Physical Laboratory. The committee, known as the Nanotechnology Sectional Committee MTD 33, consists of members of research organizations and companies, and is working for standardization in the field of nanotechnology. In its first meeting, it laid down nano devices, sensors, transistors, initiators and atomic force microscopy as priorities. Consumer products are not in their current agenda. Drawing standards for these products will require advanced technologies and trained personnel, which the committee or any research organization in India is not equipped with, says Sneha Bhatla, member secretary of the committee.
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