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3 Health and Environmental Risks Associated With Nanoparticles

Updated on October 12, 2015

Copyright 2012 - Kris Heeter, Ph.D.

As nanotechnology has become popular and used more frequently, it’s been argued that humans are now exposed to billions of engineered nanoparticles daily by ingesting food, exposure via the skin, or by inhalation.

Nanoparticles are small molecules that can be up to 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, and they can be engineered out of a number of different elements (e.g, carbon and silver).

Early on in nanotechnology, these microscopic particles showed promise for use in a wide range of products.

In recent years, manufacturers have started to use them in:

  • Food
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Electronics
  • Cosmetics
  • Textiles

The effects of long term exposure are virtually unknown. However, three recent studies highlight emerging health and environmental risks associated with exposure.

Nanomaterials in the blood stream


Health Risks - Ingestion

New research from a team at Cornell University finds that nanoparticle exposure through ingestion of foods and pharmaceuticals may be more harmful to health than previously thought.

This recent study examined the effects of a common FDA-approved nanomaterial found in food additives and vitamins call polystyrene. Polystyrene is often used in the packing and shipping industry as packing “peanuts”. Think of these nanomaterials as tiny packing peanuts that can’t be seen by the naked eye.

The study examined the commercially available, 50-nanometer polystyrene particles that have been generally considered safe for human consumption.

In animal studies, they found that following acute exposure to these particles, the absorption of iron decreased significantly within just a few hours of exposure. Iron absorption is a necessary requirement for cells. Decreased levels of iron in the blood can lead to anemia and overall low levels of iron in the body can lead to a number of health problems.

Health Risks - Inhalation

Nanomaterials are used in the manufacturing of many different types of consumer goods: electronics, textiles, cosmetics, and household products.

Recent research coming out of the University of Edinburgh suggests that the industrial manufacturing of nanoparticles poses risks to the workers who handle them.

Using rats as a model system, the study found that four different types of synthesized nanoparticles could produce distinct patterns of lung injury and in some cases damage to the immune system.

They found that some particles were more likely to trigger asthmatic reactions, whereas, others led to severe lung injury.


Additional Related Articles

Just click on the title to learn more...

Engineered Nanoparticles in Food

A review on how engineered nanoparticles in consumer products, especially food, are unregulated.

Food Additives Linked to Increased Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

Certain food additives have been linked to an increased risk of diabetes - find out which ones.

Food Additives and Dyes - Are They Tested and Safe?

Food additives and dyes are used in processed foods. Learn which ones are considered to be health risks.

Environmental Risks

Three recent studies look at the possible environmental effects of nanoparticles.

The first study:

A new study finds that the widespread use of nanosilver particles in consumer products (e.g., textiles) likely results in the distribution of these nanoparticles in lakes and streams.

Nanosilver is used in the textile industry as antibacterial agents that slow the growth of odor-causing bacteria. For example, nanosilver is popular in making antimicrobial socks.

The study found that nanoparticles in nine different textiles were released into laundry water. Laundry water eventually makes its way into environmental water sources like streams and lakes. This raises concerns among environmental biologists on what the long-term effect of high levels of these molecules will have on water wildlife and the downstream food chain.

The second study:

The effect of nanoparticle exposure on fish (trout) was examined. Researchers found that the particles caused vacuoles (holes) to form in parts of the brain and for nerve cells in the brain. This eventually led to death.

The third study:

This study examines what happens when flies and other insects encounter concentrated nanomaterial hot spots near manufacturing facilities.

Using fruit flies, they found that adult flies died or were incapacitated when their bodies were exposed to large amounts of certain nanoparticles.

Insects play a vital role in environmental stability. This study raises concerns on what happens if a population of insects in a hot spot area is wiped out and also begs the question: what happens when insects pick up and transport nanoparticles on their bodies?

The obvious concern is that they may very well be transferring the particles to other habitats and even humans in and outside the immediate environment.

All three studies, while preliminary, do suggest that more research into the long-term effects of nanoparticles on human health and to our environment are warranted.

In the meantime, as consumers, it's important to keep in mind that these materials are either approved by the FDA with very little background research or in many cases are used in manufacturing with very little to no regulation. Unfortunately, the use of these microscopic particles in products is typically not disclosed on packaging for consumers.

RESEARCH UPDATES - post publication of this original article

4-7-12 Update: Research into nanoparticles and their potential negative consequences continues. Recently, nanosilver has been found to cause DNA damage in humans. For more information, please continue reading the latest research summary at: Nanosilver Particles In Common Household Products Can Cause DNA Damage - Implications on Human Reproduction.

7-7-12 Update: Scientists from Trinity College in Dublin have linked the exposure to nanoparticles from air pollution and smoke to the development of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.


Mahler et al. Oral exposure to polystyrene nanoparticles affects iron absorption. Nature Nanotechnology. 2012.

Cho et a.. Metal Oxide Nanoparticles Induce Unique Inflammatory Footprints in the Lung: Important Implications for Nanoparticle Testing. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2010.

Liu et al. Differential Toxicity of Carbon Nanomaterials in Drosophila: Larval Dietary Uptake is Benign, but Adult Exposure Causes Locomotor Impairment and Mortality. Environmental Science & Technology. 2009


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    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      7 years ago from Indiana

      @Olde, @Larry Fields, @Charles Hilton, @MsLizzy, @UnamedHarald,@Jennifer, and @Curiad - thanks so much for your comments and for those of you that shared.

      This is definitely an area of research that is still quite primitive and needs much more attention. Like the GMO debate and concern, this going to be cause for discussion for years to come!

    • profile image

      Olde Cashmere 

      7 years ago

      It's a shame people have to worry about something like this in our modern world. Thank you for writing this article and raising awareness on something that matters. Voted up, and interesting.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 

      7 years ago from Northern California

      "The study examined the commercially available, 50-nanometer polystyrene particles that have been generally considered safe for human consumption.

      In animal studies, they found that following acute exposure to these particles, the absorption of iron decreased significantly within just a few hours of exposure. Iron absorption is a necessary requirement for cells."

      There may a nano-silver lining (bad pun, slaps self on wrist) to this finding about nano-polystyrene. Most men in the developed countries get much more dietary iron than they need. Some iron compounds are free-radical catalysts. Thus nano-polystyrene ingestion may have a small health benefit, with respect to free radicals, for North Americans.

    • profile image

      Charles Hilton 

      7 years ago

      Just more evidence of who the FDA works for---and it's not the consumer. And it's another nail in the coffin built by humanity for humanity.

      Edward Behr was right: intelligence is a lethal mutation.

      Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 

      7 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      I think businesses believe that if we can't see it, we won't worry about it and, when problems arise, they can deny these "invisible" helpers are responsible-- prove it. Antibacterial socks? We're possibly poisoning ourselves for socks that make us stink less? Then we're as much of the problem, aren't we? Very interesting. Voted up, interesting and useful.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      7 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Yeeks! Sounds like something out of a Sci-Fi novel! Yes, our government is allowing corporations to poison us, slowly, over generations. To what end save greed, I've no idea, for what good will it all do when there is no one left to buy their contaminated products? Poetic justice would be served if those on the manufacturing end suffered the effects of their ill-advised research before it got out to the rest of us.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      This is very interesting and I will definitely be following you on this issue, thank you for the great information!

      Voted Up and Shared.

    • Jennifer Essary profile image

      Jennifer Essary 

      7 years ago from Idaho

      Voted up, useful, and awesome. I'm a strong believer that food can either be the best medicine or lead to a slow painful death. It is astonishing how many chemicals are in our food, air, water, and personal care products. If we want our nation to be healthy and prevent disease I believe we have to address the issues in food safety head on.

    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 

      7 years ago from new jersey

      Wow, very interesting information.

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      7 years ago from Indiana

      @phdast7 - I'll continue to follow the research on this and will follow up with updates as they come:)

      @RTalloni - this is definitely an area that I've been concerned about too. I've had to skin cancers removed and so obviously sunscreens are necessary for me with my fair skin but it concerns me that while trying to be proactive with one thing, I'm exposing myself to something that may be just as harmful. I'll definitely keep posting on this as more research is done.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Nanoparticles in sun screens have been a concern of mine for sometime. Dermatologists (and other docs) do not like to discuss the topic, but I continue to hear bits and pieces (excuse the pun) that point to the fact that we should be on the alert regarding nanoparticles. Sun screen is a "prescription" that people who have been diagnosed with skin cancers are given routinely, and sternly. So glad to see this topic highlighted in this hub, and I also hope to see more from you on it.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Kris - An excellent Hub about an important health and environment. concern that we all need to be aware of. I greatly appreciate and respect that you indicate your sources. Any possibility of a follow up article in a few months once testing results are more definitive? In particular it would be very helpful if you could point us in the right direction as far as lodging complaints to the relevant government agencies. Thank you. SHARING

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      7 years ago from Indiana

      @Melis Ann - Thanks for sharing the hub:) I decided to add in the environmental effects as well since it all will come back to influencing us as humans at some point. And so often, the environmental effects on wildlife as the "canary in the mine shaft" - early indications of what could eventually affect us humans.

    • Melis Ann profile image

      Melis Ann 

      7 years ago from Mom On A Health Hunt

      Oh so important. This is the first hub that I have SHARED with my followers. This is a great summary of the nano-particle issue. I'm glad to see you covered the environmental effects as well as the effects on human health.

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      7 years ago from Indiana

      @Larry - you are quite right and that prospect is scary.

      The whole GM project started out with great intentions for third world countries. I've spoken to the daughter of the gentleman who first introduced/developed the technology for GM crops as an academic researcher. He has since passed away but she mentioned that he'd be disappointed to see how badly this has played out. Farmers unable to save seed if they have purchased GM seed and then the increased use of chemicals now required with some GM crops - usually doing more harm than good for the soil.

      I've also seen reports that some GM fields are now cross contaminating nearby non-GM fields. I could easily see that opening up a whole new set of potential problems in light of the scenario you mentioned. Crops that are supposed to be non-GM but may be contaminated, going to market, and someone with an allergy or sensitive to something in the GM crop ends up being exposed inadvertently...

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 

      7 years ago from Northern California

      Kris Heeter wrote:

      "Unfortunately, the use of these microscopic particles in products is typically not disclosed on packaging for consumers."

      Nondisclosure is a big deal. The example in the back of my mind is GM foods, which are not necessarily bad in and of themselves. Several years ago, genetic engineers experimented with inserting genes for a Brazil nut protein into soybeans. These nuts are rich in sulfur-containing amino acids, which are present in slightly-less-than-optimal concentrations in soybeans. The hoped-for result: a slightly higher quality protein in the GM soybeans.

      Then one of the genetic engineers thought to himself: Hey, wait a minute! Some people are deathly allergic to certain nuts. If the GM soy products found their way onto supermarket shelves, and if there were no warning labels, the hidden nut protein could end up killing people. Better to kill the project than to risk the liability exposure.

      However an equally bad GM product could contaminate our food some day. In this scenario, mandatory labels for all GM foods could give consumers a heads-up, and save some lives.

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      7 years ago from Indiana

      @Brett.Tesol - thanks for sharing this hub. It does indeed seem that as we avoid one thing, something else takes it place!

    • Brett.Tesol profile image

      Brett C 

      7 years ago from Asia

      Unfortunately we, well industry, is polluting almost everything on the planet, from vegetable to fish and even the air we breath. It is to the point where it just isn't worth worrying about, as by avoiding one toxin, you are likely to increase exposure to another.

      Socially sharing, up and interesting.

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      7 years ago from Indiana

      @American_Choices: I agree, they are one the most annoying things! I cringe every time I get a package with them. They seem to have a life of their own and end up everywhere.

    • American_Choices profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      Packing peanuts is one of the most annoying things in the universe. So glad there may be a medical reason to hate this horrible invention.

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      7 years ago from Indiana

      @GoGreenTips - I agree, we are definitely sort of "test subjects" on this stuff. Everyone assumes they safe so they were widely used until long term use proves it one way or the other.

    • GoGreenTips profile image

      Greg Johnson 

      7 years ago from Indianapolis

      Very interesting article! Never really knew that nano particles use was that common. It seems that corporations use technology before it has even been deemed safe to the average person, they sort of use us as test subjects.

    • Evylyn Rose profile image

      Evylyn Rose 

      7 years ago from Virginia, USA

      Interesting article! Although many of us are conscious of the negative risks of over-processed foods these days, we hardly ever consider the use of nanoparticles. I think you are onto something when you say that genetics and other factors may play a role in how sensitive we are to them. As a vegan who was anemic as an infant, I rely on iron supplements to ensure I get enough to keep from feeling lethargic and faint. Knowing for sure whether or not certain nanoparticles are going to affect my ability to absorb iron will let me know what I need to avoid to stay at optimal health. I hope further research continues soon! Thanks for sharing.

    • Kris Heeter profile imageAUTHOR

      Kris Heeter 

      7 years ago from Indiana

      @Larry - great comments. These studies are pretty preliminary and a rigorous dose response curves haven't been done yet, especially in humans. Obviously it's not easy to test directly on humans for ethical reasons.

      I suspect that in the end, genetic makeup on an individual basis will play a huge role. There will be some sub-populations that will be able to handle various doses without any problems whereas other sub-populations will be sensitive at even low doses based on their genetic makeup.

      That's becoming the theme in drug studies and other health issues. Sensitivities to mold and other allergens is an example that comes to mind. Some can tolerate high levels with no problem whereas others cannot.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 

      7 years ago from Northern California

      Voted up and interesting. One consideration in the studies you mentioned is this:

      What are the various dose-response curve at the lower concentrations of nanoparticles that are typically encounterd in the environment?

      As the old saying goes, "It's the dose that makes the poison."

      At the moment, the third study appears to have the greatest relevance.


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