Health hazards from nanoparticles in common consumer products
14 February 2014
Nanoparticles composed of titanium, chromium, manganese, iron,
nickel, copper and zinc compounds that are used in many consumer
products are toxic to human cells.
Nanoparticles are used in all kinds of applications including
electronics, medicine, cosmetics, even environmental clean-ups. More
than 2,800 commercially available applications are now based on
nanoparticles, and by 2017, the market is expected to be worth
nearly $50 billion worldwide.
But this influx of nanotechnology is not without risks, say
researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology. “There
is an urgent need to investigate the potential impact of
nanoparticles on health and the environment,” says Yue-Wern Huang,
professor of biological sciences at Missouri S&T.
Huang and his colleagues have been systematically studying the
effects of transition metal oxide nanoparticles on human lung cells.
These nanoparticles are used extensively in optical and recording
devices, water purification systems, cosmetics and skin care
products, and targeted drug delivery, among other applications.
Their research has been published in the journal Chemico-Biological
“In their typical coarse powder form, the toxicity of these
substances is not dramatic,” says Huang. “But as nanoparticles with
diameters of only 16-80 nanometers, the situation changes
The researchers exposed both healthy and cancerous human lung
cells to nanoparticles composed of titanium, chromium, manganese,
iron, nickel, copper and zinc compounds — transition metal oxides
that are on the fourth row of the periodic table. The researchers
discovered that the nanoparticles’ toxicity to the cells, or
cytotoxicity, increased as they moved right on the periodic table.
“About 80% of the cells died in the presence of nanoparticles of
copper oxide and zinc oxide,” says Huang. “These nanoparticles
penetrated the cells and destroyed their membranes. The toxic
effects are related to the nanoparticles’ surface electrical charge
and available docking sites.”
Huang says that certain nanoparticles released metal ions —
called ion dissolution — which also played a significant role in
cell death. He is now working on new research that may help reduce
nanoparticles’ toxicity and shed light on how nanoparticles interact
with cells. “We are coating toxic zinc oxide nanoparticles with
non-toxic nanoparticles to see if zinc oxide’s toxicity can be
reduced,” Huang says. “We hope this can mitigate toxicity without
compromising zinc oxide’s intended applications. We’re also
investigating whether nanoparticles inhibit cell division and
influence cell cycle.”
1. Cytotoxicity in the age of nano: The role of fourth period
transition metal oxide nanoparticle physicochemical properties.
Chemico-Biological Interactions, Nov. 25, 2013.