Nanoparticles, or the tiny bits of particles produced when a mineral is broken down into smaller and smaller bits, have been present for years in consumer products from baby powder to sunscreens, however they may ultimately do more harm than good.
For an example, chemistry professor Jerry Harris with Northwest Nazarene University refers to asbestos, a mineral that became widely used in the United States in the 20th century as insulation because it was affordable and was efficient at absorbing sound when milled down. However, decades later it was discovered that inhaling nanoparticles of asbestos could cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other illnesses. Harris and his team of scientists are looking out for the next lethal nanoparticle in an effort to ward off similar public health issues from consumer products.
Their research led them to sunscreens that contain zinc oxide. Studies have linked nanoparticles of zinc oxide to an increased risk of skin cancer. Researchers theorize that the mineral undergoes a chemical reaction when it is broken down that may release unstable molecules, called free radicals, which could damage cells of the DNA contained in them, resulting in an increased risk of skin cancer.
Last summer, Consumer Reports issued a warning to parents not to use spray sunscreen on their children while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducts an investigation into claims into safety concerns with nanoparticles. The consumer advocate said that nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, found in some sunscreens, could cause developmental problems in children. And since the spray form of these sunscreens are more likely to be inhaled by children, they pose a potential threat.
Nanoparticles can be found in other consumer products, such as baby powder. The powder contains talc, which is milled into talcum powder. Talc can contain asbestos, though in recent years asbestos must be removed from talc-containing products sold in the United States. Talc can also contain zinc oxide.
Recently, researchers have linked regular and long-term use of talc-containing products in the genital area for personal hygiene to an increased risk of ovarian cancer. The particles, in some cases, can move into the uterus and cervix, through the fallopian tubes and into the ovaries where they can trigger the growth of cancer cells.
Sound farfetched? Scientists have known this for years, and so has consumer health care giant Johnson & Johnson. A jury recently ruled in favor of a woman who claimed regular use of the company’s Shower to Shower product on her genitals caused her ovarian cancer and that Johnson & Johnson was aware of the risks but failed to adequately warn consumers.