Nanotechnology in Kid’s Products: 5 Questions with Dr. Jennifer Sass

Nanotechnology in Kid’s Products: 5 Questions with Dr. Jennifer Sass

January 17, 2023

By Alexandra Zissu, Editorial Director

There are big changes being made in kid’s consumer products—in the smallest possible way. We’re talking about nanotechnology, the science of making the once unimaginable out of incredibly tiny raw materials. It’s already at work in our kids’ products in everything from sunscreen to antimicrobial socks to plastic training potties.

Nanotechnology operates on a molecular scale. At this ultra-microscopic level, materials and the structures made from them display unusual abilities. That’s often helpful—nanotech developments in areas like medicine and electronics are leading to revolutionary advances. But the same properties that make these materials so useful may also make at least some of them uniquely toxic. This is why many people in the scientific community are concerned that the rush to exploit nanotechnology may be introducing new kinds of pollution into our homes and environment.

Healthy Child Healthy World recently joined the Natural Resources Defense Council in voicing these worries to the EPA during a review of a new antimicrobial material called Nanosilva; its harmlessness is not yet assured. That’s the case with many nanomaterials, and it points to larger questions about the technology, including what, if anything, parents should know. For answers, we turned to Dr. Jennifer Sass, Senior Scientist at the NRDC.

1. Let’s start with the basics. What is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnologies are the convergence of chemistry, physics, and engineering at the nanoscale, to take advantage of unique physical properties associated with small size. The products of these efforts are called nanomaterials, consisting of nanoparticles 1-100 nanometers in size (grouped) into structures. [Editor’s note: a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.]

2. How widespread is nanotechnology in consumer products?

The development of nanotechnology has skyrocketed in recent years. The independent advisory firm, Research, predicts that in 2023 nanotechnology value chain sales could reach $2.5 trillion. Nanomaterials are found in thousands of everyday products, including ultra-light high-end road bike frames with carbon nanotubes, chip-resistant paint, anti-wrinkle creams with carbon buckyballs, and nanosilver impregnated clothing.

3. Why is nanotechnology a concern? 

We can make some basic assumptions, and while these assumptions may not prove true in all cases, they are likely to be true in most cases. Small size facilitates easier access to the lungs, passage through cell membranes, and possibly skin. Once inside the body, nanomaterials seem to have access to all tissues and organs, including the brain and fetal circulation. Animal studies suggest that some nanomaterials cause inflammation, damage brain cells and cause pre-cancerous lesions. We know that ultrafine air pollution, which is nano-sized, is associated with reduced lung function and increased likelihood of asthma, respiratory disease, and deaths from lung and heart disease.

Nanosilver penetrates organs and tissues in the body that larger forms of silver cannot reach, like the brain, lung, and testes. Toxicological studies [found that] carbon nanotubes cause tissue damage similar to that found for asbestos. Taken together these and other data suggest that particles of such small size present special risks that need to be studied.

4. What kind of regulations control the use of nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is not regulated. However, nanomaterials can be regulated. They are regulated much like normal-scale materials, which is unfortunately often very inadequate. For example, nanomaterials in cosmetics are regulated by FDA. However, FDA does not have authority to require cosmetic companies to submit safety data or to obtain post-market health and safety data for any products. Medical applications that use nanomaterials are better regulated. Pesticidal uses of nanosilver have been regulated by EPA. Unfortunately, like most pesticides, they are being approved through a process that allows them onto the market on the condition that more risk data is supplied over the following several years. They are being approved with no long-term or chronic exposure data, no reproductive toxicity data, and no cancer data.

Industrial nanomaterials [i.e. those used in engineering, manufacturing, and other technical processes] are reviewed by EPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Many have been approved, [all] with far less risk assessment data than EPA had for nanosilver. EPA identified the following health concerns: pulmonary toxicity, fibrosis, carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, and immunotoxicity. There are also data suggesting that some nanoscale materials may induce cardiovascular toxicity when these materials are inhaled.

5. Is there anything else can we do to safeguard our families from nanotechnology hazards?

There is no sure way of knowing if a product contains a nano-sized ingredient or not, since there are no labeling requirements. This means that some products are advertising “nano” when they are not, and others have it but aren’t listing it. The Woodrow Wilson Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies keeps a database of nanomaterials in consumer products that can be searched. The best way to safeguard our families from the potential hazards of nano-scale materials is to avoid products that are aerosolized [i.e. sprayed]—this goes for sunscreens, hairsprays, and other products. This avoids the risk of inhaling particles.