December 1, 2009

The Scariest Health News of The Year: Nanoparticles Damage DNA

Lost in the usual holiday media noise was the single most disturbing piece of research I have read all year. You can read the abstract here:

Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles Induce DNA Damage and Genetic Instability In vivo in Mice Benedicte Trouiller et al. Cancer Research, 69, 8784, November 15, 2009. Published Online First November 3, 2009;
doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-09-2496.

You can read an expanded discussion of this same study here:

Science Daily: Nanoparticles Used in Common Household Items Cause Genetic Damage in Mice.

Nanoparticles are extremely tiny particles, which are found rarely in nature--for example in metallic ceramic glazes--but they only came into prominence over the past 15 years when modern manufacturing technologies made it possible to make them in bulk. They are used for hundreds of applications, from enhancing the sparkliness of cosmetics, to making fabrics stain resistant, and to delivering drugs.

These particles are so tiny they can easily move through cell membranes in ways that normal sized particles cannot. But because many of these new nanoparticles are made out of commonly occurring minerals considered safe--like the titanium dioxide which was the subject of the above study--they moved out of the lab into consumer products without the kind of extensive safety review they should have been given.

The study above found that when mice drank water with titanium dioxide nanoparticles in it, the particles concentrated in their organs. Their bodies have no way to eliminate them since these kinds of particles are very rare in nature.

Worse, because these nanoparticles are so tiny they can pass through cell membranes, the research cited above found they caused "genetic instability" and DNA deletions. They also caused inflammation.

There are many rodent studies that must be viewed sceptically, but that research is inevitably research involving high level functions like the balance of macronutrients in an animal's diet. But this research looks like it would apply to any mammalian cell. And that means these same water-borne particles that get into the mouse organ also pass through human cell membranes with devastating effect.

If if that is the case, we are all in huge trouble, because these nanoparticles are everywhere. Here's what the chief researcher on the above study explained:
The manufacture of TiO2 nanoparticles is a huge industry...with production at about two million tons per year. In addition to paint, cosmetics, sunscreen and vitamins, the nanoparticles can be found in toothpaste, food colorants, nutritional supplements and hundreds of other personal care products. [emphasis mine]
.An study published this past March found that these particles are being discharged into waste water and making their way into the environment in amounts that have the potential to damage life forms at all levels.

Science Daily: Nanoparticles In Cosmetics, Personal Care Products May Have Adverse Environmental Effects

Referring to the nanoparticles found in cosmetics, the chief researcher in the March study explained,
... the particles are washed down the drain in homes as people bathe and end up in municipal sewage treatment plants. From there, they can enter lakes, rivers, and other water sources where microorganisms serve essential roles in maintaining a healthy environment.
She also studied survival of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria when exposed in laboratory cultures to various amounts of nano-TiO2.
She found surprisingly large reductions in survival in samples exposed to small concentrations of the nanoparticles for less than an hour.
Another study reported in this same article found that another microorganism
... cannot tolerate silver, copper oxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles. Toxicity occurred at levels as low as micrograms per liter. That's equivalent to two or three drops of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
You Have No Way of Knowing What Products Contain Nanoparticles

Because labels only indicate the chemical name of an inorganic substance, not the form in which it occurs in a product, you have no way of knowing if the drugs, cosmetics, or supplements you use contain these particles.

Nor is titanium dioxide the only nanopartcles that is being used in industrial quantities. Nanoparticle versions of silicates and other metal oxides are everywhere. Silver nanoparticles are used in antibacterial applications. Nanoparticles are used in clothing to make socks resistant to odor. Wash the socks and particles enter the water supply. They are in sunscreens. They are in stain resistant fabrics.

The nanoparticle business is huge and the companies profiting from selling these "high tech" substances are not going to give them up without a fight. Only the big chemical companies and their customers know what other nanoparticles might be in products you buy. Clothing, carpet, and furniture are likely candidates, given the increasing use of nanoparticles in fabric.

Nanoparticles in fabrics and cosmetics supposedly do not go through the skin, but that should not make you feel safe because of the way they eventually reach groundwater when you bathe. And because they are also being added to pills and perhaps foods none of us can feel safe.

A quick scan of my calcium supplements shows that they contain silicon dioxide--low on the list of ingredients, which suggests that it occurs in a small quantity. Silicon dioxide is more familiar to us under its common name, "Sand." Given the lack of grittiness in my calcium pill it's likely that this is a nanoparticle introduced to make the supplement look better.

I can't tell you what is in my metformin because there is no requirement that the drug company furnish me with a list of ingredients. However, it is very possible it too contains a nanoparticle introduced to make its whiteness look "purer."

The history of asbestos gives us a good idea of how long it takes to get a dangerous substance out of our environment--decades after lab research has clearly defined its toxicity. Asbestos was mostly used applications where it could be easily identified, not in food, clothing, drugs, and cosmetics.

Given the weakness of our regulatory bodies and the strength of the chemical industry, chances are that what we have here may be an ecological and medical catastrophe that may dwarf anything we have hitherto seen. It will take a decade or two for the effects of nanoparticles to become so obvious even the chemical industry must admit they are real. Because they are so universally distributed, it may be very difficult to link them to the effects they create.

With every new piece of research pointing to the dangers, the chemistry industry will respond, "More research needs to be done" the way they did with asbestos and the way that the cigarette companies did with tobacco.

By the time the danger is understood, these particles will have dispersed through our environment and our bodies in ways that may be irreversible.

Did I say this story was scary? That word is far too weak.



Steve said...

Thanksk for bringing this to our attention. I hadn't heard of it before.

All I'm going to do about it right now is wait for more information.


Helen said...

I stopped using anything nano a while ago, but what scares me is that there's no way to control it getting into the environment. I get overwhelmed about all these chemicals, the vigilance it takes to avoid them as a consumer, and the fact that they're already in everything we touch and eat anyway.

Mel said...

Scary is right! I had known about the dangers of micronized Titanium and Zinc Oxide in relation to sunscreen and cosmetics, but I didn't realize it was used in so many other things.

LHL said...

Particles of mica used in shimmery makeup are also presumably a problem.
In addition, this is mined by children in the 3rd world. As reported by: