When a mineral is broken down into smaller and smaller particles, or nanoparticles, its biological makeup can be affected, turning a seemingly harmless mineral into a potential lethal threat. Understanding which minerals’ nanoparticles pose risks is the work of a group of researchers at Northwest Nazarene University.
Chemistry professor Jerry Harris refers to the book, “Asbestos: Silk of the Mineral Kingdom,” which was published in 1946 and touted the benefits of abestos. Asbestos became widely used in the United States throughout the 20th century as insulation because of its affordability and sound absorption. What researchers didn’t learn until decades later is that inhaling the mineral can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other illnesses.
Harris says he and his fellow researchers are taking a close look at nanomaterials in order to “avoid something like asbestos from happening again.” One of his students is concentrating his research on zinc oxide, an ingredient often found in sunscreen, baby powder, anti-dandruff shampoo and diaper rash ointment.
Two years ago, a study appeared in the journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology linking topical use of zinc oxide to an increased risk of skin cancer. Researchers for that study theorized that the mineral undergoes a chemical reaction that may release unstable molecules, called free radicals, which could damage cells or the DNA contained in them, resulting in an increased risk for skin cancer.
Baby powder contains talcum powder, which is derived from talc. Talc can contain various minerals including asbestos and zinc oxide. Talc-containing products now sold in the United States no longer contain asbestos. However, they may contain zinc oxide.
Recently, researchers have connected regular use of baby powder on the genitals for personal hygiene to an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Researchers say that nanoparticles from the powder can travel into the uterus, through the cervix, up the fallopian tubes and into the ovaries where they can trigger the growth of cancer cells.
A woman recently won a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson where she claimed regular use of the company’s Shower to Shower powder caused her to develop the deadly disease. Jurors agreed that the consumer healthcare giant should have warned consumers of this risk.