Some of us still remember the unanticipated consequences of thalydomide, a drug then banned in the U.S. by a cautious FDA scientist. Taken by pregnant women who got the drug in Europe, the resulting deformities created a rash of infants with flipper-like vestigial arms. And no one anticipated the consequences of DDT; created as an insecticide, it threatened to become the cause of a world without birds. Is that sort of nightmare likely to happen again?
You never know. Substances that are harmless in one form acquire new characteristics when reduced to nano size.
Just what is a nano? Its one billionth of a meter. I once saw a nanosecond illustrated by a length of wire about a foot long. It was the distance electricity, traveling at the speed of light, could travel in a nanosecond. As described in the Rachels Democracy & Health News, a free Internet newsletter, a human hair is 80,000 nanometers wide. A strand of DNA is 3.5 nanometers across. A nano particle is that tiny.
Thats part of the allure of the new nanotechnology. At such small sizes, ordinary substances acquire totally different characteristics, including toxicity. Strange things happen when ordinary substances like the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in your sunscreen are reduced to nano size.
In chemistry, nano particles have an enormous increase in surface area. As such, their ability to absorb UV light is greatly increased, just the thing when youre shielding the skin from harmful sunlight. But what makes cosmetics and sunscreens that use nano materials absorb through the skin quickly also allows them to penetrate the cells themselves and to travel throughout the body.
They can even affect parts of living cells and may impact DNA. The unanticipated result of this technology is the reason why the International Center for Technology Assessment has filed a 79-page petition to the FDA to ban all sales of cosmetics and sunscreens that use nano technology until they are proven to be safe. They ask that such products be declared a hazard to public health. They want all nano substances to be classified as new drugs, subject to the same testing and scrutiny as medicines.
Most of us realize that asking industries to voluntarily regulate themselves is naïve at best. Industries argue that they are over-regulated. Consider how many drugs have had to be recalled. Cynical corporate lawyers regard payments of claims by survivors to be an acceptable cost of doing business. Is losing a spouse or child an acceptable risk?
The FDA argues that particle size doesnt matter, that zinc oxide is zinc oxide even when reduced to nano size. Unfortunately, there are no current laws requiring companies to label cosmetics and sunscreens to warn users of the potential, untested hazards of nano substances. Theres no way to know whether the sunscreen you apply today may turn out to be toxic as those tiny particles travel throughout your body.
When I was a kid we never used sunscreen. Girls rubbed themselves with baby oil so they could brown like fried chicken. We couldnt wait to get down to the beach. Inevitably we burned and peeled before we got that deep darky tan, so dark that I was once mistaken for an African-American.
Those days are over. Now in summer I wear white painters pants and long-sleeve white shirts and a Foreign Legion hat. With a summer on the water ahead of me, all that reflected sunlight, and the risk of skin cancer from the accumulated damage of those early sunburns, it looks like Ill have to smear my nose and lips with plain old white and goopy zinc oxide. Even a parasol wont protect you from reflected UV rays. What a sight!
Lets hope the FDA acts quickly at least to require appropriate warning labels on cosmetics and sunscreens with nano substances.
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