Nanotechnology and Public Health: Part 2/2

By: Michael Heintz, Senior Specialist, Environmental Laboratories, APHL

This is the second in a two-part series on the implications of nanotechnologies on public health. See Part 1 for an introduction to nanotechnology and nanomaterials. Part 2 delves into how this emerging field may impact various parts of public and environmental health.

Nanotechnology and Public Health

Nanomaterials provide new opportunities for detection, remediation and protection. Laboratories, in particular, need to understand the uses of nanomaterials because the small particles with very different properties and reactivity will affect laboratory operations.

– Environmental Health: Nanomaterials may provide significant new remediation tools, while also presenting contamination concerns. As consumer goods use nanomaterials more often, the potential for accidental exposure or release increases. Disposal from nanomaterial-containing goods, such as cosmetics and paint, could cause increased soil and water contamination as the nanomaterials leach. In some instances, nanomaterials are small enough to permeate the liners of landfills and other barriers, providing exposure pathways into groundwater and other environmental resources. Similarly, accidents or other releases can cause direct environmental harm. Additionally, nanomaterials appearing in sunscreens may be small enough to pass through the skin and into the biological system of people.

Of particular concern for laboratories is that nanomaterials may begin appearing in both clinical and environmental samples. Without proper controls, nanomaterials may cause unknown impacts on results. And, given the higher reactivity at lower concentrations, test methods may not accurately reflect the presence of nanomaterials leading to confusing or illogical test results.

– Food Safety: Food safety issues may be the largest area of concern when it comes to nanomaterials. Nanotechnology is employed in a large portion of the food chain including agriculture (pesticides and sensors), processing (nanocapsules and flavor enhancers), packaging (sensors and spoilage barriers), and supplements (vitamin sprays). On the other hand, the potential for longer food preservation, more efficiency in nutrient uptake, and disease resistant crops provides significant benefits to society. In addition, nanomaterials may allow for rapid pathogen testing in food sources. Such tests could potentially avoid outbreaks and recalls before food is moved to the market.

– Preparedness: For emergency response preparedness, the products using nanomaterials are largely the same as in other industries. Nanosensors and testing platforms used in the environmental sector are available to emergency responders for contamination warning and rapid analysis using handheld equipment (lab-on-a-chip). However, because the reactivity of nanomaterials is not widely understood in an emergency context, preparedness may be impeded by adding variables to emergency response situations. For example, nanomaterials age during environmental oxidation, but there is no information on how this aging process will change the properties of the materials.

In addition to these potential benefits and risks, the overarching issue remains uncertainty. Without clear direction as to the limits of nanotechnology, industry will continue to operate in a vacuum, products will continue to be developed and sold, and research will be left to catch up.

For more information on nanotechnology issues and areas of concern, see the following:

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