Nanoparticles: A Tiny Question of Safety

Revolution Without Regulation

How do you get the ketchup to slide easily out of the bottle? Nanoparticles. They're the miracle technology we're using in everything from sunscreen to paint. But how much do we really know about nanotechnology and its potential impact on our health?

August 11, 2012


If you have Robert Schiestl over to your house, don’t be surprised to see him peeking at ingredient labels on things in your kitchen or bathroom.

He can’t help it. Schiestl, a leading U.S. cancer expert, instinctively reads the label before he buys or uses a host of products — any food that’s partly white, toothpaste, sunscreen, shampoo, over-the-counter medicine.

He’s trying to avoid nanoparticles, which a growing pile of studies say may cause cancer, damage to organs and skin, Crohn’s disease and environmental pollution.

Labels in Canada and the U.S. don’t have to say whether a product contains nanoparticles — so to be completely sure, Schiestl avoids all products with two ingredients that are increasingly used in nano-form: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

The tiny particles causing the concern are as little as 10,000 times the width of a human hair and are measured in nanometres, or billionths of a metre.

They’re part of a revolutionary technology that’s been touted as “the most powerful tool the human species has ever used” — giving us the ability to build anything we can conceive molecule by molecule, and potentially leading to healthier lives and cleaner energy.

Governments, eager to get on the nanotechnology bandwagon, have shovelled huge public subsidies into nanotech in the past decade, fuelling its growth into a $250-billion-per-year global industry that is expected to grow to $3 trillion by 2015.

The subsidies have helped promote the use of nanoparticles in thousands of goods — everything from food colouring to scratch-resistant coating on eyeglasses and anti-bacterial agent in clothes.

Nanotech has even answered the age-old problem of getting ketchup out of the bottle. In 2007, German scientists developed a super-slippery nano-coating for bottles that lets ketchup slide out more easily.

Yet, more than a decade after nanoparticles started being widely used in consumer products, they are still subject to virtually no regulation in Canada, and little is known about their health impacts....