(ISNS) — No longer the stuff of science fiction, nanoparticles are becoming more and more common. The extremely tiny objects can do just about everything, from filtering pollution to delivering medicine in the body. However, no one is sure of the effects if they get loose in the environment.
A team of scientists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst thinks there may be something to worry about.
They have not proven the particles are dangerous, but have shown that some nanoparticles can be absorbed into plants and mutate the plant’s DNA, and that, they say, is worth a further look.
Nanoparticles are so small that they act as a bridge between the size of atoms and something of tangible substance. The thickness of a human hair is measured in millionths of a meter; nanoparticles, in billionths of a meter.
And now, they are everywhere. Manufacturers put them in clothing such as socks to kill bacteria. They are in a type of house paint that cleans itself in sunlight and in the coating on eyeglasses. Clear sunscreen lotion now on the market contains zinc or titanium nanoparticles. Cars will soon have paint that heals itself from scratches.
Nanoparticles have become so common it is assumed inevitably they will end up in the environment.
To see what would happen to plants exposed to nanoparticles, the researchers took particles of copper oxide and exposed three kinds of plants to them: radishes and two types of rye, the researchers reported in Environmental Science & Technology.
They chose nanoparticles of copper because they are widely used for coloring glass, in ceramics, as a polish and in the manufacturing of rayon. They also are used in the electronics industry to manufacture semiconductors, said Bryant Nelson of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
The research team also used particles of copper oxide larger than nano-size as a comparison as well as regular copper ions.
Copper oxide is an oxidizing agent, and some oxidizing agents from metals can cause cancer in humans, a reason for the concern.
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