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Are nanoparticles unknowingly part of your Memorial Day plans?

Posted May. 25, 2012 / Posted by: Ian Illuminato

For those of us who are outdoor enthusiasts, the Memorial Day holiday will bring us outside to explore nature. Outdoor clothing and equipment are usually sold with shiny multi-page tags touting the superiority of the materials used to create them. Consumers are likely to have noticed a growing trend on these labels: some contain the word ‘nano’ and advertise special properties. 

Nano is short for nanotechnology, which makes it possible to manufacture particles with extremely small dimensions. One nanometer (nm) is equal to one millionth of a millimeter (mm), roughly 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. At this scale, chemicals exhibit unique physical properties. Nanomaterials can mimic the qualities of fabrics like cotton (for comfort) and enhance their performance with synthetic components. Various well known brands use nanotechnology-based textiles like Nano-Tex and claim product enhancements.

Looking to buy gear with Superman-like strength and other tempting qualities such as resistance to stains, static, sweat, wrinkles and odor? Then get ready buy a product with nano in it.

The appeal of owning reliable outdoor gear that will keep you warm (or cool) and dry while out in the wilderness is clear. Yet, companies rushing to hype the novel properties of their nanoproducts have been quick to ignore the novel toxicity associated with such materials.

Scientific studies have raised important concerns about nanomaterials and their potential toxicity for people and the environment. Certain nanomaterials can be toxic to mammals and aquatic life, pose hazards to food crops, kill a variety of cells, and mutate and damage DNA (see our reports for more information and links to studies).

Nanomaterials are especially toxic when inside of the body, on the skin, or when inhaled. Nanoparticles may be less likely to migrate to our bodies from products such as tents but can easily make the journey when embedded in food packaging and cosmetics (yes, nanoparticles are in places you may have never imagined!). Workers who construct products with nanoparticles are at an even higher risk of exposure, since the industry has yet to develop effective protective equipment.

It’s not just safety that’s an issue. Some of these products simply don't work. Studies have shown that “odor-resistant” socks made with nanoparticles of silver lose their microbe-killing capability after a few cycles in the wash.

This begs a further question: what happens when nanoparticles are released into the environment, and how will they be recycled? Nano-silver has been shown to be toxic to fish and other organisms in soil and water.

Consumers will hear about the promise of futuristic products constructed with nanotechnology. “Nano-generators” embedded in clothing could someday power an iPod via simple body movement. Clothing could change color with the flip of switch.

Scientists’ growing understanding of quantum physics has gifted us with nano-capabilities -- and is certain to produce enlightening discoveries. However, profit-driven companies have taken a small portion of this new scientific understanding and started to prematurely sell risky products. As wondrous as some of these products can seem, they must be critically evaluated. The toxic nightmares of past “wonder materials” like asbestos should give consumers caution.

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