What will nanotechnology mean to you?

2 04 2014

A hot topic in the media right now is the toxicity of chemical flame retardants that are in our furniture and are migrating out into our environment.  Tests have shown that Americans carry much higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than anyone else in the world, with children in California containing some of the highest levels ever tested.   According to Ronald Hites of Indiana University, these concentrations have been “exponentially increasing, with a doubling time of 4 to 5 years.”[1]  These toxic chemicals are present in nearly every home – packed into couches, chairs and many baby products including (but not limited to) mattresses, nursing pillows, carriers and changing table pads (scary!).  Recent studies have found that most couches in America have over 1 pound of the toxic chemical Chlorinated Tris inside them[2], even though it was banned in children’s pajamas over cancer concerns over a generation ago.[3]

Why the concern?  Fire retardant chemicals, called PBDE’s (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and impaired fetal brain development, as well as decreased fertility.  And even though they’ve been banned in the U.S. and European Union, they persist in the environment and accumulate in your body – and they’re still being used today.

So its probably no surprise that there is a mad scramble on to produce a fire retardant that does not impact our health or the environment.   The current front runners, touted as being “exceptionally” effective yet safer and more environmentally friendly than the current fire retardants, use nanotechnology – specifically “nanocoatings” and “nanocomposites”[4] .  These composites and coatings are based on what are called “multiwalled carbon nanotubes” or MWCNTs.

Based on a final report published by the U.S. EPA in September 2013 about the assessment of the risks of using these  MWCNTs, the EPA found that there will be releases of these MWCNTs into the environment throughout the life cycle of textiles – to our air and water during production,  in the form of abraded particles of the textiles falling into the dust in our homes, and in the disposal of furniture in municipal landfills or incineration facilities.[5]

While it is reasonable to propose that substituting nanomaterials for polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDEs)  or chlorinated triss  and calling it “sustainable”, the fact is that no quantitative study has ever been done to support this assertion . [6]

Please don’t misunderstand me – I am all for finding safer alternatives to the current crop of chemical fire retardants (assuming I buy into the argument that we actually need them).  However, I don’t want us to jump from the frying pan into the fire by rushing to use a technology which is still controversial.  But the race is on:  the US patent office published some 4000 patents under “977 – nanotechnology” in 2012, a new record.

patents nanotech

Here’s an interesting video which helps to explain how nano works – and why we will need extensive study to absorb the many implications of this emerging science.

Consider these science fiction type scenarios of how nano can be used to profoundly change our lives:

  • “nanomedicine” offers the promise of diagnosis and treatment of a disease – before you even have the symptoms.  Or it promises to rebuild neurons for people with Alzheimers or Parkinson’s disease – and stem cells for whatever ails you!   Bone regeneration.  [7]
  • Surfaces can be modified to be scratchproof, unwettable, clean or sterile, depending on the application.[8]
  • Quantum computing.
  • Solar cells capturing the sun’s visible spectrum – as well as infrared photons –  doubling the solar energy available to us.  How about zero net carbon emissions.
  • Nanoscale bits of metals can detoxify hazardous wastes.
  • Clothing that recharges your cell phone as you stroll, or an implant that measures blood pressure powered by your own heartbeat.

And yet.  The unknowns are great, and as Eric Drexler has said, the story involves a tangle of science and fiction linked with money, press coverage, Washington politics and sheer confusion.  Scientists and governments agree that the application of nanotechnology to commerce poses important potential risks to human health and the environment, and those risks are unknown. Examples of high level respected reports that express this concern include:

  • Swiss Federation (Precautionary Matrix 2008)[9]
  • Commission on Environmental Pollution (UK 2008)[10];
  • German Governmental Science Commission (“SRU”)[11];
  • Public testimony sought by USA National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH, Feb 2011)[12] ;
  • OECD working group (since 2007)[13];
  • World Trade Organization (WTO)[14]
  • as well as several industrial groups and various non-governmental organizations.

Nanotechnology is already transforming many products – water treatment, pesticides, food packaging and cosmetics to name a few – so the cat is already out of the bag.  Consider this small example of the nano particle  argument:  When ingested the nanoparticles pass into the blood and lymph system, circulate throughout the body and reach potentially sensitive sites such as the spleen, brain, liver and heart.[15]   The ability of nanoparticles to cross the blood brain barrier makes them extremely useful as a way to deliver drugs directly to the brain.  On the other hand, these nanoparticles may be toxic to the brain.  We simply don’t know enough about the size and surface charge of nanoparticles to draw conclusions.[16]  In textiles, silver nano particles are used as antibacterial/antifungal agents to prevent odors.

But there are almost no publications on the effects of engineered nanoparticles on animals and plants in the environment.

So it’s still not clear what nanoscience will grow up to be – if it doesn’t kill us, it might just save us.

[2] Stapleton HM, et al. Detection of organophosphate flame retardants in furniture foam and U.S. house dust. Environ Sci Technol 43(19):7490–7495. (2009); http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/es9014019.

[3] Callahan, P and Hawthorne, M; “Chemicals in the Crib”, Chicago Tribune, December 28, 2012, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-12-28/news/ct-met-flames-test-mattress-20121228_1_tdcpp-heather-stapleton-chlorinated-tris

[5] Comprehensive Environmental Assessment Applied to Multiwalled Carbon Nanotube Flame-Retardant Coatings in Upholstery Textiles: A Case Study Presenting Priority Research Gaps for Future Risk Assessments (Final Report), Environmental Protection Agency, http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/nano/recordisplay.cfm?deid=253010

[6] Gilman,  Jeffrey W., “Sustainable Flame Retardant Nanocomposites”; National Institute of Standards and Technology

[7] Hunziker, Patrick,  “Nanomedicine: The Use of Nano-Scale Science for the Benefit of the Patient” European Foundation for Clinical Nanomedicine (CLINAM) Basel, Switzerland 2010.

[9] Swiss National Science Foundation, Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials Implementation Plan of the National Research Programme NRP 64 Berne, 6 October 2009; see also Swiss Precautionary Matrix, and documents explaining and justifying its use, available in English from the Federal Office of Public Health.

[10] Chairman: Sir John Lawton CBE, FRS Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, Twenty-seventh report: Novel Materials in the Environment: The case of nanotechnology. Presented to Parliament by Command of Her Majesty November 2008.

[11] SRU, German Advisory Council on Environment, Special Report “Precautionary strategies for managing nanomaterials” Sept 2011. The German Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU) is empowered by the German government to make “recommendations for a responsible and precautionary development of this new technology”.

[12] See: Legal basis and justification: Niosh recommendations preventing risk from carbon nanotubes and nanofibers ”post-hearing comments Niosh current intelligence bulletin: occupational exposure to carbon nanotubes and nanofibers Docket NO. NIOSH-161 Revised 18 February 2011; Testimony on behalf of ISRA (International Safety Resources Association) Before NIOSH, USA. Comments prepared by Ilise L Feitshans JD and ScM, Geneva, Switzerland. Testimony presented by Jay Feitshans, Science Policy Analyst; ISRA Draft Document for Public Review and Comment NIOSH Current Intelligence Bulletin: Occupational Exposure to Carbon Nanotubes and Nanofibers, Docket Number NIOSH-161-A.

[13] The OECD Working Party for Manufactured Nanomaterials (WPMN) “OECD Emission Assessment for Identification of Sources of release of Airborne Manufactured Nanomaterials in the Workplace: Compilation of Existing Guidance”, ENV/JM/MONO (2009)16, http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/15/60/43289645.pdf. “OECD Preliminary Analysis of Exposure Measurement and Exposure Mitigation in Occupational Settings: Manufactured Nanomaterials” OECD ENV/JM/MONO(2009)6, 2009. http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/36/36/42594202.pdf.
“OECD Comparison of Guidance on selection of skin protective equipment and respirators for use in the workplace: manufactured nanomaterials”, OECD ENV/JM/MONO(2009) 17, 2009. www.oecd.org/dataoecd/15/56/43289781.pdf.

[14] WHO Guidelines on “Protecting Workers from Potential Risks of Manufactured Nanomaterials” (WHO/NANOH), (Background paper) 2011

[15] Dixon, D., “Toxic nanoparticles might be entering human food supply, MU study finds”, August 22, 2013, http://munews.missouri.edu/news-releases/2013/0822-toxic-nanoparticles-might-be-entering-human-food-supply-mu-study-finds/

[16] Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified health Risks (SCENIHR), The European Commission, 2006



Breast cancer and acrylic fibers

16 09 2010

Just in case you missed the recent report which was published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine [1], a Canadian study found that women who work with some common synthetic materials could treble their risk of developing breast cancer after menopause.  The data included  women working in textile factories which produce acrylic fabrics   –  those women have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than the normal population, while those working with nylon fibers had double the risk.

I found it interesting that the researchers justified their findings because “synthetic fibers are typically treated with several chemicals, such as flame retardants from the organophosphate family, delustering agents, and dyes, some of which have estrogenic properties and may be carcinogenic.”

These are the same organophosphate flame retardants and dyes that are used across the textile spectrum, and which are found in most textiles that we surround ourselves with each day.

But also let’s look at the fibers themselves.  The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide). It is a carcinogen (brain, lung and bowel cancers) and a mutagen, targeting the central nervous system.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption, as well as inhalation and ingestion.  So could the acrylic fibers in our acrylic fabrics be a contributing factor to these results?

Acrylic fibers are just not terrific to live with anyway.  Acrylic manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which require careful storage, handling, and disposal. The polymerization process can result in an explosion if not monitored properly. It also produces toxic fumes. Recent legislation requires that the polymerization process be carried out in a closed environment and that the fumes be cleaned, captured, or otherwise neutralized before discharge to the atmosphere.(2)

Acrylic is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. Some acrylic plastics are highly flammable and must be protected from sources of combustion.

What about nylon?  Well, in a nutshell, the production of nylon includes the precursors benzene (a known human carcinogen) and hydrogen cyanide gas (extremely poisonous); the manufacturing process releases VOCs, nitrogen oxides and ammonia.  And finally there is the addition of those organophosphate flame retardants and dyes.

Of course, there are the usual caveats about the study, and those commenting on it said further studies were needed since chance or undetected bias could have played a role in the findings. In addition, according to Reuters, “the scientists said more detailed studies focusing on certain chemicals were now needed to try to establish what role chemical exposure plays in the development of breast cancer.”  So this is yet another area in which more research needs to be done.  No surprise there.

But in the meantime, did you know that many popular fabrics are made of acrylic fibers?   One of the most popular is Sunbrella outdoor fabrics.     Sunbrella fabrics have been certified by GreenGuard Children and Schools because the chemicals used in acrylic production are bound in the polymer – in other words, they do not evaporate.   So Sunbrella fabrics do not contribute to poor air quality, (you won’t be breathing them in), but there is no guarantee that you won’t absorb them through your skin.  And you would be supporting the production of more acrylic, the production of which is not a pretty thing.

And what about backings on fabrics?  Many are made of acrylic.  Turn those fabric samples over and see if there is a plastic film on the back – it’s often made of acrylic.  Upholsterers like fabrics to be backed because it makes the process much easier and stabilizes the fibers.

So I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll avoid those synthetics for now – at least until we know where we stand.

[1] Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817  (abstract: http://oem.bmj.com/content/67/4/263.abstract)  SEE ALSO:  http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321

(2)  http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Acrylic-Plastic.html

What are PBDE’s and why should I be concerned?

21 07 2010

PBDE’s are chemical compounds that are used as flame retardants.  They can be found in almost anything that carries an electrical current or is highly flammable.  They’re in, for example, your TV, your computer, your cellphone,  your car, your toaster and your sofa. 

PBDE stands for polybrominated diphenyl ether – a compound which contains bromine atoms.  PBDE’s come in different forms, depending on the number and location of the bromine atoms.   There are 209 possible variations.  Often in the U.S. PBDE’s are marketed with trade names such as DE-60F or Saytex 102E (among others).  Variations of the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s)  include pentabrominated diphenyl ethers (pentaBDE’s); octabrominated diphenyl (octaBDE) and decabrominated diphenyl ethers (decaBDE’s).   Penta and Octa BDE’s are on the way out worldwide (are actually no longer produced in the US), but the chemical industry is waging a fierce fight to retain the use of the third major PBDE compound, Deca, which is the most widely used of the PBDE’s – about 50 million pounds a year in the U.S. alone.

PBDEs are released into the environment during manufacturing operations, as products containing these chemicals degrade, or when the products containing the PBDE’s  are disposed.


SHORT ANSWER:   PBDE’s are everywhere, they accumulate and they spread.  And they’re really not good for us.


Demand for flame retardants is up:  The average “escape time” that a person has to get out of a burning home has dropped from 17 minutes in 1975 to only 3 minutes today, according to a study by Underwriters Laboratories released in October 2007.  The reason for this is that plastics, from which so much of our consumer products are made, are made from oil, which is actually considered an accelerant in fires.  And synthetic fabrics (according to the UL study) produce hotter fires and more toxic smoke than natural fiber furnishings. The higher fire load of consumer products and home decorations has effectively made home fires so dangerous that fire alarms sounding will often not provide adequate time for occupants to escape. The flame retardants for plastics therefore have become more critical than ever before. Increasingly stringent fire codes and flammability requirements, especially in building materials and consumer products, are driving demand for flame retardants steadily higher.

PBDE use has increased 40% from 1992 to 2003, and is forecast to grow by at least 3% per year from 2011;   they are ubiquitous in consumer products.

Food is the major source of exposure for many contaminants, including DDT and PCBs.   But food doesn’t seem to be the culprit in this case: Since PBDEs are used as additive flame-retardantsand do not bind chemically to the polymers, they leach fromthe surface of the product and easily reach the environment.  In fact, The Environmental Working Group calculations show that dust is likely to be a more important PBDE exposure route for children than food, as PBDEs migrate from furniture and electronics into house dust.

And they don’t stay put:  Sit down on a foam cushion and you’re releasing countless, invisible PBDE particles. When the TV gets hot, still more escape and land in the dust in our homes. They rinse off our clothes in the laundry and run down the shower drain, winding up in sewage that’s applied to farm fields as fertilizer.

And what about all that plastic in the ocean gyres or in landfills?  It is slowly leaching PBDE’s.

These chemicals have characteristics that make them intrinsically hazardous to humans and other animals:  they are stable (persistent), they are fat seeking and they have the potential to act as endocrine disruptors.  What is meant by these sorta innocuous sounding terms is:

  1. persistent:  they bioaccumulate, or build up, in fish and cats and Orcas and foxes – and people.  Our bodies cannot get rid of these contaminates, so our levels just increase over time.  We eat PBDEs when they contaminate our food, particularly meat and dairy products. They latch on to dust and other particles, so we breathe them in, or ingest them when dust settles on food or when children stuff their fingers into their mouths. Scientists look for PBDEs in breast milk because the chemicals stick to fat. In 1999, Swedish researchers reported that PBDE levels in women’s breast milk had increased 60-fold between 1972 and 1997.  Similar dramatic increases were documented in California harbor seals, ringed seals from the Arctic, gull eggs from the Great Lakes and human blood from Norway.   PBDE pollution has been found essentially everywhere scientists have looked: in the tissues of whales, seals, birds and bird eggs, moose, reindeer, mussels, eels, and fish; in human breast milk, hair, fat and blood; in hot dogs and hamburgers and the cheese we put on them;  in twenty different countries and remote areas such as the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Arctic Ocean, on top of mountains and under the sea.
  2. fat seeking: this causes them to magnify up the food chain, increasing in concentration at each successively higher  level. Once PBDE’s are released into the environment, they invariably find their way into humans, including pregnant women, where they pass  to the developing fetus in utero or through the breast milk to the nursing infant.  As evidence of fetal exposure, the infant at birth has levels of PBDE’s that are up to 25% of maternal levels.  And researchers have found that children’s PBDE levels are about 2.8 times higher than their mothers. Research in animals shows that exposure to brominated fire retardants in-utero or during infancy leads to more significant harm than exposure during adulthood, and much lower levels of PBDEs are needed to cause harm to infants and children than to adults.
  3. endocrine disruptors: Many of the known health effects of PBDEs are thought to stem from their ability to disrupt the body’s thyroid hormone balance, which plays an essential role in brain development.  Laboratory animals showed deficits in learning and memory with exposure to PBDE’s.   Studies of mice showed that a single exposure to PBDEs caused permanent behavioral aberrations that worsened as the mice got older.  One study, for instance, found that women whose levels of T4 measured in the lowest 10 percent of the population during the first trimester of pregnancy were more than 2.5 times as likely to have a child with an IQ of less than 85 (in the lowest 20 percent of the range of IQs) and five times as likely to have a child with an IQ of less than 70, meeting the diagnosis of “mild retardation.”
    1. In addition to their effects on thyroid hormones and neurological development, PBDEs have been linked to a gamut of other health impacts in laboratory animals, from subtle to dramatic.  In-utero exposures have  been associated with serious harm to the fetus, including limb malformation, enlarged hearts, bent ribs,  delayed bone hardening, and lower weight gain. The malformations of the fetus were consistently seen at levels much lower than doses harmful to the mouse mothers.
    2. Only one commercial PBDE mixture has been tested for its ability to cause cancer, in a single study more than 15 years ago. High doses of Deca given to rats and mice caused liver, thyroid and pancreas tumors.

What does all of that mean, exactly?  

Personal choices can make a difference. Buying furniture, fabric, cell phones or computers made without PBDEs is definitely a vote for a non-toxic future. But personal choices can only go so far – and the crisis is great.   PBDEs, like other contaminant issues, are at least as much a social as a personal issue and challenge. You can help your kids not only with your buying habits, but also by modeling social action for environmental change, and by campaigning for a non-toxic future, the kind of future where mother’s milk will regain its purity.