The consumer products we use, such as food, cosmetics and clothing, may unknowingly be full of nanomaterials. The use of nanomaterials is not regulated and does not need to be stated in the product information. The phenomenon is worrying, as nanomaterials can be even more dangerous than the coronavirus in the long term: they are difficult to measure, they end up in our food chain and, most worryingly, they penetrate cells and accumulate in organs.
Nanotechnology is everywhere today. Thanks to its applications, we are able to treat many diseases so effectively that they are almost gone. We also have materials that are a hundred times stronger than steel, batteries that last ten times longer than before, solar panels that provide twice as much energy, and skin care products that keep us looking youthful. And don’t forget to self-clean cars, windows and clothes. These things, previously seen mainly in science fiction and Hollywood movies, have become part of our daily lives.
Nanotechnology has the potential to start the next industrial revolution. The global market for nanomaterials is growing: currently, a market of around 11 million tonnes is worth € 20 billion. The direct employment impact of the nanomaterials sector is between 300,000 and 400,000 people in Europe alone.
However, nanomaterials and their use in consumer products are not without problems. A new study published in the journal Nature Communications looked at the potential harm of nanomaterials and their effects on organisms. The researchers used a new, more sensitive method to study nanomaterials and their passage in blood and tissues. The subject of the study was the food chain of the aquatic ecosystem from microorganisms to fish, which in turn is one of the most important sources of human food in several different countries.
- We found that nanomaterials adhere tightly to microorganisms that are used by other organisms for food. This is how nanomaterials end up in our food chain. Nanomaterials can also change shape and size within organisms and can form dangerous compounds that can penetrate cells and spread to other organs. We also found that nanomaterials tend to accumulate especially in the brain, says Fazel A. Monikh , postdoctoral researcher at the University of Eastern Finland.
Researchers say nanomaterials are also difficult to measure: their amount in an organism cannot be measured solely on the basis of mass, which is otherwise a commonly used method for measuring the amount of chemicals. The results of the study highlight the importance of risk assessment of nanomaterials before they are widely used in consumer products. A better understanding of the risks of nanomaterials will also help policy-makers to develop stricter regulations for their use and labeling.
- The products we use, such as food, clothing and cosmetics, may well contain nanomaterials, but they are not mentioned in the product label. This is possible because nanomaterials are not regulated and their measurement from the finished product is impossible due to their small size, says postdoctoral researcher Monikh.
- People have the right to know what kind of products they use and buy for their loved ones. This is a global problem that needs a global solution. Many questions about nanomaterials await one answer: for example, we don’t know if they are safe for us and the environment, where they end up after use, and how we can assess their risks, Monikh notes.
Abdolahpur Monikh F, Chupani L, Arenas-Lago D, et al. Particle number-based trophic transfer of gold nanomaterials in an aquatic food chain. Nature Communications. 2021;12(1):899. doi:10.1038/s41467-021-21164-w
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