Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter Andrew Schneider broke the story of the asbestos poisoning of Libby, Montana, and now he’s digging into the use of another substance that has the potential to become equally widespread before its risks to human health are understood. In a three-part series for AOL News, Schneider reports on how widely used nanomaterials are, what researchers are learning about potential health risks associated with them – and how disappointingly slow the US regulatory system has been to respond.

In “Amid Nanotech’s Dazzling Promise, Health Risks Grow,” Schneider explains that the booming nanotech market holds promise for achieving advances in medicine and food safety, but we don’t yet know how our bodies are affected by nanoparticles we inhale, ingest, or spread on our skin. (You may not think you’re doing these things, but nanoparticles are in so many products these days that we’re all probably exposed to some degree.) He describes a range of research findings that raise concerns:

For almost two years, molecular biologist Bénédicte Trouiller doused the drinking water of scores of lab mice with nano-titanium dioxide, the most common nanomaterial used in consumer products today.

She knew that earlier studies conducted in test tubes and petri dishes had shown the same particle could cause disease. But her tests at a lab at UCLA’s School of Public Health were in vivo — conducted in living organisms — and thus regarded by some scientists as more relevant in assessing potential human harm.

Halfway through, Trouiller became alarmed: Consuming the nano-titanium dioxide was damaging or destroying the animals’ DNA and chromosomes. The biological havoc continued as she repeated the studies again and again. It was a significant finding: The degrees of DNA damage and genetic instability that the 32-year-old investigator documented can be “linked to all the big killers of man, namely cancer, heart disease, neurological disease and aging,” says Professor Robert Schiestl, a genetic toxicologist who ran the lab at UCLA’s School of Public Health where Trouiller did her research.

… What’s more, the particles Trouiller gave the mice to drink are just one of an endless number of engineered, atom-size structures that have been or can be made. And a number of those nanomaterials have also been shown in published, peer-reviewed studies (more than 170 from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health alone) to potentially cause harm as well. Researchers have found, for instance, that carbon nanotubes — widely used in many industrial applications — can penetrate the lungs more deeply than asbestos and appear to cause asbestos-like, often-fatal damage more rapidly. Other nanoparticles, especially those composed of metal-chemical combinations, can cause cancer and birth defects; lead to harmful buildups in the circulatory system; and damage the heart, liver and other organs of lab animals.

Regulated or Not, Nano-Foods Coming to a Store Near You” delves into the issue of nanotech products being used in food products and packaging. Schneider reports that nearly 20 of the world’s biggest food manufacturers have invested in nano labs or contracted out development of nano-related food products – but they’re keeping quiet about their efforts, and aren’t providing useful information to either the public or to regulators.

The Food and Drug Administration has assured Congress that food companies are being forthright about their use of nanomaterials, but the federal food-safety specialists who Schneider interviewed warned that it’s a mistake to rely on voluntary industry actions. FDA has already classified titanium dioxide (one of the materials often used in nano products) as a “generally recognized as safe” food additive, which means companies using it can skip health testing. By contrast, Canadian and EU food-safety agencies require nanomaterial ingredients to be submitted to regulators prior to marketing.

It’s understandable that we might be willing to tolerate some risks accompanying nanoproducts designed to treat medical problems, but I certainly don’t want to be ingesting a substance of dubious safety just so I can get the last dregs of ketchup out of the bottle. That’s just one of the examples of food nanomaterials that Scheider has been digging up:

Officially, the FDA says there aren’t any nano-containing food products currently sold in the U.S.

Not true, say some of the agency’s own safety experts, pointing to scientific studies published in food science journals, reports from foreign safety agencies and discussions in gatherings like the Institute of Food Technologists conference. 

… Another government scientist says nanoparticles can be found today in produce sections in some large grocery chains and vegetable wholesalers. This scientist, a researcher with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, was part of a group that examined Central and South American farms and packers that ship fruits and vegetables into the U.S. and Canada. According to the USDA researcher — who asked that his name not be used because he’s not authorized to speak for the agency — apples, pears, peppers, cucumbers and other fruit and vegetables are being coated with a thin, wax-like nanocoating to extend shelf-life. The edible nanomaterial skin will also protect the color and flavor of the fruit longer.

“We found no indication that the nanocoating, which is manufactured in Asia, has ever been tested for health effects,” said the researcher.

… For example, a team in Munich has used nano-nonstick coatings to end the worldwide frustration of having to endlessly shake an upturned mustard or ketchup bottle to get at the last bit clinging to the bottom. Another person told the investigators that Nestlé and Unilever have about completed developing a nano-emulsion-based ice cream that has a lower fat content but retains its texture and flavor.

… Interviews with more than a dozen food scientists revealed strikingly similar predictions on how the food industry will employ nanoscale technology. They say firms are creating nanostructures to enhance flavor, shelf life and appearance. They even foresee using encapsulated or engineered nanoscale particles to create foods from scratch.

In “Obsession with Nanotech Growth Stymies Regulators,” Schneider explores how our government is responding to nanotech concerns – or, in some cases, failing to respond. As his title suggests, one of the main problems is that officials see nanotech as a promising generator of jobs and revenue, and they think regulating it would slow the industry’s growth.

Maybe it’s just because I’m not thinking in election-cycle time, but it seems whatever benefit governments reap from fast, under-regulated industry growth could vanish if it turns out that nanomaterials are harmful to human health. We could be looking at thousands of injured and disabled people, who will need expensive care (much of it likely to be funded by Medicare and Medicaid) and whose contributions to our economy and society will be reduced. If it turns out that the nanosilver particles washing out of our antibacterial socks and into our waterways are problematic for ecosystems and water supplies, cleanup costs could be massive. And if there’s harm, there will be lawsuits eating up countless hours of time for our already strained justice system.

Despite the potential for serious damage to health, the environment, and the economy, the federal government seems more interested in promoting nanotechnology than studying its health effects. Schneider reports that the Obama administration’s 2011 budget proposes $1.8 billion for nanotechnology, but only $117 million (6.6%) of that is designated for studying health issues related to nanomaterials. He also quotes Celeste and former VP Dick Cheney in the same paragraph, describing the executive-branch attitude toward technologies that have the potential for both great achievements and great risk:

“Do nothing to prevent innovation” was former Vice President Dick Cheney’s marching orders to the Office of Management and Budget during President George W. Bush’s administration. “For years OMB acted as industry’s protector,” says Celeste Monforton, assistant research professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health. She is among the public health activists who cringe to hear the phrase still being used by President Barack Obama’s regulators.

That sanctity-of-innovation attitude might be behind FDA’s apparent lack of interest in determining the safety of nanomaterials used in foods, cosmetics, or dietary supplements:

“FDA is like ostriches with their heads in the ground, not looking for a problem so they do not see one. If they don’t see one, they don’t have to respond to a problem,” says Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety.

The FDA does need better tools and expertise to predict the behavior of nanomaterial, [FDA Deputy Commissioner for Science and Public Health Jesse] Goodman concedes. But, he adds, “to get information needed to assess the safety of nano-products, we do that in a way that doesn’t cause a problem in terms of preventing innovation.”

… For all that, however, the FDA appears most AWOL in its handling of nanomaterial in food. Food safety experts in the agency say it is doing little more than paying bureaucratic lip service to developing criteria for handling the anticipated avalanche of food, beverages and related packaging that is heading to store shelves. (The agency declined repeated requests to interview any of its food scientists or regulators.)

Schneider notes that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has been studying the effects of different nanomaterials, and has made recommendations for safe handling of nano-titanium dioxide. But NIOSH has no regulatory authority; only the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can require workplaces to adopt safeguards NIOSH recommends. When Schneider tried to find out about whether OSHA might be regulating the use of nanomaterials any time soon, “OSHA leaders refused to respond to questions on what the agency will do in the meantime.”

At least the Environmental Protection Agency is trying to do something about one type of nanoparticle. Schneider reports that since 2008, EPA has been working toward controls on carbon nanotubes, which are one of the most commonly used types of nanoparticles. The agency issued a final notice on “Significant New Use Rules,” which would require companies to notify EPA about intentions to manufacture, import, or process carbon nanotubes, but it has withdrawn, resubmitted, and postponed its proposal in the face of industry opposition. Schneider notes that EPA has a hard time accessing corporate information about health studies because companies can declare their data to be “confidential business information.” If EPA is really going to tackle nanotech issues, stronger legislation would help:

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has said she wants to put an end to the corporate maneuvering, especially as it applies to the new nanomaterial. While testifying before a Senate committee in December attempting to add teeth to the Toxic Substances Control Act, Jackson explained the obstacles EPA risk assessors confront in trying to do their jobs.

Due to the legal and procedural hurdles in the law, over the past 30 years, the administrator said, EPA has only been able to require testing on about 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals produced and used in the United States.

“EPA should have the clear authority to establish safety standards that reflect the best available science … without the delays and obstacles currently in place, or excessive claims of confidential business information,” Jackson told the lawmakers. In February, the agency’s assistant inspector general, Wade Najjum, issued a report that said “EPA’s procedures for handling confidential business information requests are predisposed to protect industry information rather than to provide public access to health and safety studies.”

The changes to the Toxic Substances Control Act that Jackson is advocating would require mandatory reporting of the use of nanomaterials. EPA lawyers have told Senate investigators that the overhaul is vital due to the industry pressure spawned by the big business opportunities new nano-products can generate. Meanwhile, some nanotechnology players are pushing hard to get a resistant EPA to grandfather in nanomaterial already on the market. It’s a significant point of dispute: One of the reasons the EPA is seeking the mandatory reporting requirement in the first place is that the agency is convinced the current voluntary system of submitting safety data doesn’t work. In the fall, EPA assistant administrator Steve Owens told an international conference on regulating nanomaterial that about 90 percent of the various nanoscale materials already being used commercially, or thought to be used, were never reported to the government.

Check out the AOL News Nanotech Gamble page – it features these three articles, plus additional info from Schneider’s in-depth investigation. And even more info on nanotechnology, food safety, and other public-health topics is available on Schneider’s Cold Truth blog. One of the interesting posts I found there is about William Norwood, president of nanoAgri Systems, who’s developed an antibacterial food packaging that uses nanosilver.

Norwood points out that food-borne illnesses take a tremendous toll on our society, and a food spoilage is a major source of waste. Packaging that could keep food fresh and bacteria-free for longer time periods could counteract these problems. There are plenty of nanotech innovations like these that have the potential to benefit society, so it’s worth setting up a system that will assess their safety and make sure that everyone – consumers, workers, and those who rely on the water where this nanosilver can end up – is protected.