Nano-Technology is the process of manipulating matter at the molecular level. It is a questionable technology that works with atoms to change the structure of matter. Why do some companies claim it is better?
Aside from those companies' ambiguous marketing speak, nanoparticles do have an increased surface area which offers more space for interaction with other substances. Picture a coffee maker. If you fill it with whole coffee beans, you get a very weak cup of coffee. But if you grind the beans first, you will increase the surface area of the coffee beans and get a dark, strong cup of coffee. This is their primary reasoning in their claims.
Unfortunately, at the same time, it is also the cause of the harmful effects.
So why isn't "more surface area" a good thing?
This is referred to as bio-availability, which means the amount of a substance that enters the bloodstream and is available to have an active effect. When bio-availability is attained naturally, it results in very positive health benefits. However, when nano-engineered materials are used to increase bioavailability, the result is harmful for multiple reasons.
What it is
Nano-Technology disables the body's natural ability to protect itself from harmful particles
Nano-engineered dietary supplements can gain access to areas of the body normally protected from conventionally sized particles.
Additionally, it disables the body's natural defense system
In a two-strike move, after the body has been invaded by nanoparticles, the very same nanotechnology can cause an inability for the body to excrete some substances which can build up to toxic levels. Not only do nanoparticles bypass the body's natural barriers, but they can also cancel out the body's second level of defense.
Substances at the nano scale have higher toxicity than they do at their normal size. Toxicity is one of the major concerns of the FDA and other experts.
Potential to bypass the Blood-Brain Barrier
Because they are tiny, nanoparticles have the potential to bypass the blood-brain barrier (the membrane that controls the passage of substances from the blood into the central nervous system). They also can pass the placental barrier. Studies have found that nanoparticles can easily travel from nasal passageways to the brain. Once in the bloodstream, nanomaterials can circulate throughout the body and be taken up by organs and tissues. Given the higher toxicity of these particles, it is disturbing that the length of time they remain in the organs is so highly elevated. What dosage causes harmful effects is unknown.
Side effect: Potentially increased absorption of toxins
Nano-engineered materials increase the bioavailability of other chemicals, such as known toxins. It is now proven that nano-engineered titanium dioxide in sunscreen products increases the skin's absorption of several pesticides.
Why does the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allow nanotechnology?
In 2006, the FDA formed its Nano-technology Task Force. Because nano-technology was in its relative infancy at the time of their 2007 report, there was no ability to establish specific regulations or guidelines as there had been for genetically modified materials. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has been very critical of the FDA for not putting more emphasis on nanoengineered materials.
The FDA does not have the capacity to identify nano-based dietary supplements unless manufacturers voluntarily submit to a premarket notification process for new dietary supplements. For obvious reasons, the manufacturers do not submit to this voluntary process.
The FDA currently has little regulatory authority over nanoengineered products, but the agency states that it is a "top priority". In the April 2012 FDA Nanotechnology Fact Sheet, the FDA states:
Understanding nanotechnology remains a top FDA priority. FDA is monitoring the evolving science and has a robust research agenda to help assess the safety and effectiveness of products using nanotechnology.
The danger lies, as one can understand from the current FDA position, in the fact that the harmful effects are already proven with many more unknown. Chemicals like PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) and pesticides like DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and Dieldrin, which were once thought to be safe, were not truly understood until long after human health and environmental damage already occurred.
Because nano-technology rapidly became a useful marketing tool, the FDA has been unable to move quickly to even answer the question whether the application of nanotechnology comes under any current FDA guidelines, if at all. At this time, nano-engineered products cannot make specific health claims.
How did nanotechnology get this far along with all its dangers?
The initial studies brought about excitement regarding the bioavailablity. Dietary supplement manufacturers quickly jumped onto the marketing potential with 11 nanoceuticals in 2006. This number jumped to 44 in 2009. Unfortunately, with all the excitement about the bioavailability, researchers did not even address the possibility of toxicity or side effects for years. When the toxicity was proven, thousands of products were already on the market without any testing or concerns about safety issues.
Mark Meskin, PhD, RD, FADA, professor emeritus of the department of human nutrition and food science at the California State Polytechnic University states:
This is a clear example of technology getting well ahead of the science. There is concern about the potential for toxicity.
Meskin says, "Nanotechnology raises important issues regarding safety." He goes on to explain that nano-engineered products can bypass typical protective barriers in the body and deliver quantities of biochemical that the body would not naturally encounter. This makes the introduction of nanoceuticals into the marketplace potentially dangerous, especially when the government does not regulate them effectively.
Dr. Meskin also states:
The fact that a new technology has been developed that can deliver these untested and unregulated chemicals more effectively is problematic at best, and a real concern to healthcare professionals. Until there are human clinical trials attesting to their safety and efficacy, they should be treated as potentially harmful.
In Nanotechnology: Basic Science and Emerging Technologies, William Schultz writes:
Even if the FDA were granted authority, it lacks the scientific expertise and resources to effectively regulate nanomaterials in supplements.
On January 25, 2013, the Natural Academy of Sciences published a report by the National Research Council, stating:
Health and Environmental Effects of Nanomaterials Remain Uncertain; Cohesive Research Plan Needed to Help Avoid Potential Risks From Rapidly Evolving Technology.
The National Council went on to say:
Little progress has been made on the effects of ingested nanomaterials on human health and other potential health and environmental effects. [...] Therefore, there is the need for a research strategy that is independent of any one stakeholder group, has human and environmental health as its primary focus, builds on past efforts, and is flexible in anticipating and adjusting to emerging challenges.
On the PBS show Nova, Andrew Maynard, the director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan, was asked on air: But do we really have the means to effectively test the safety of nanomaterials since they're so new? The director's reply was:
Well, we're really struggling.
You can listen to the audio recording of the interview with Andrew Maynard on the PBS website.
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