Nanotechnology – A Threat to Our Health and the Environment?

Vito Buonsante
Health and Environment Lawyer at ClientEarth

The smallest car in the world is one billionth of a metre. 60,000 times smaller than the thickness of a hair. And is self-propelled. Instead of carrying people or freight, it could transport molecules and atoms and be used to reconstruct damaged cells.

Nanoparticles can perform tasks that were previously never thought possible.

In recent years, nanomaterials have been increasingly used in consumer products, from sunscreens to food containers, heralded for making disinfectants that bit more effective or helping to disinfect your socks and underwear. They have even been used to clean up water contaminated with heavy metals.

But the shrinking of particles to a nanoscale can change their properties. As with many emerging technologies, we still have little understanding of the impacts these tiny particles have on our health and the environment. More and more studies are warning of the potential hazardous properties of nanoparticles. For example, nanosilver is known to wash through the sewage system into the water course and kill beneficial bacteria, which in turn disrupts ecosystems. Günter Oberdörster, a prominent expert on nanomaterials and author of the Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) paper of the year in 2008, recently advised against any use of products containing nanomaterials in sprays, for cleaning surfaces or in self-cleaning materials.

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The Effect of Environmental Chemicals on Insulin Production: Implications for All Types of Diabetes

Sarah Howard
Coordinator of CHE’s Diabetes-Obesity Spectrum Working Group

In a recent review, published in the leading diabetes journal Diabetologia, Hectors et al. (2011) describe how numerous environmental chemicals affect the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas. These effects, the authors argue, may be significant in the development of type 2 diabetes. Chemicals like bisphenol A, PCBs, dioxin, organophosphorous pesticides, arsenic, heavy metals, and others, can all affect how the beta cells function, and can interfere with their capacity to secrete insulin.

In type 2 diabetes, both insulin resistance—the body’s inability to respond correctly to insulin—and beta cell malfunction contribute to the disease. The inability of the beta cells to produce enough insulin leads to high blood glucose levels, and eventually diabetes (in many people with type 2, insulin production is higher than normal, to compensate for the insulin resistance—but it is still inadequate to bring blood glucose under control).   

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Science Pick: BPA and Type 2 Diabetes: What Do the Human Studies Tell Us?

Sarah Howard
Coordinator of CHE’s Diabetes-Obesity Spectrum Working Group

In the past couple of months, three new analyses have asked the question: Is exposure to the widespread environmental chemical bisphenol A (BPA) associated with type 2 diabetes in humans? These three add to two previous studies on the same topic, for a grand total of five. It is a good question to ask, since laboratory evidence shows that exposure to BPA can cause insulin resistance in animals, as well as disrupt the functioning of the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, essentially a recipe for type 2 diabetes (Alonso-Magdalena et al).

As we might expect, the new evidence does not provide a clear-cut answer to that question.

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Science Pick: Traffic and Brain Health

Editor’s note: With this post, CHE is initiating a series of “Science Pick” brief commentaries on scientific studies of significance to our partners.

Nancy Myers
Science and Environmental Health Network

I would like to highlight a recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Hidden Toll of Traffic Jams.” In this piece published November 8, 2011, Robert Lee Hotz calls attention to the growing body of research on the effect of traffic fumes on brain health and development.

The popular press has an important role in interpreting science for the public. Too often, however, cutting-edge science like this is interpreted as controversial, which means journalists feel obliged to present contrasting views.  Notice that this article contains no such counterarguments, only a few hedging remarks about uncertainties.

Perhaps the fact that traffic pollution is harmful is already a no-brainer, so to speak.

A more useful press convention is to point to solutions, which Hotz does nicely:

“In New Jersey, premature births, a risk factor for cognitive delays, in areas around highway toll plazas dropped 10.8% after the introduction of E-ZPass.”

“AfterNew York traffic managers rerouted streets in Times Square recently to lessen congestion, air-pollution levels in the vicinity dropped by 63%.”

Though the article doesn’t contain links to the actual peer-reviewed studies, the studies are easy to find in a search. Here, for example, are some open-access journal articles to which the report alludes.

Residential Proximity to Freeways and Autism in the CHARGE Study. Heather Volk and others, Environmental Health Perspectives,119(6) June 2011.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons–Aromatic DNA Adducts in Cord Blood and Behavior Scores in New York City Children. Frederica P. Perera and others, Environmental Health Perspectives,April 12, 2011.

Children Are Likely to Suffer Most from Our Fossil Fuel Addiction. Frederica P. Perera, Environmental Health Perspectives,April 17, 2008.

Nancy Myers posts information on cumulative impacts at www.cumulativeimpacts.org, a project of CHE and the Science and Environmental Health Network.

Society’s Feeding Disorder: Food Additives and Our Health

Elise Miller, MEd
Director

How has food, something essential to human evolution, become so disconnected from health and nutrition? You would think in the 10,000 years since humans started domesticating food supplies we would have pretty much figured out how to feed ourselves well—and by “well” I do not mean having supermarket shelves stocked with 50 kinds of sugary cereals and three varieties of pesticide-laden apples.

There are of course many aspects of the agricultural industry and our current food system that can make one queasy about buying almost any food, except from the farmer next door (and unfortunately, most people do not have a farmer next door). I think of these as society’s feeding disorder—including farm subsidies, antibiotics in meats, pesticide use, toxins in food packaging, and myriad external costs of transporting food thousands of miles from where it was grown. The regulation of food additives, however, is what I will focus on here.

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