Journal for Biophysical Chemistry

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Open Access

Nanomaterials and nanoparticles: Sources and toxicity

  • Cristina Buzea1,
  • Ivan I. Pacheco2 and
  • Kevin Robbie1

DOI: 10.1116/1.2815690

Received: 13 June 2007

Accepted: 30 October 2007


This review is presented as a common foundation for scientists interested in nanoparticles, their origin, activity, and biological toxicity. It is written with the goal of rationalizing and informing public health concerns related to this sometimes-strange new science of “nano,” while raising awareness of nanomaterials’ toxicity among scientists and manufacturers handling them. We show that humans have always been exposed to tiny particles via dust storms, volcanic ash, and other natural processes, and that our bodily systems are well adapted to protect us from these potentially harmful intruders. The reticuloendothelial system, in particular, actively neutralizes and eliminates foreign matter in the body, including viruses and nonbiological particles. Particles originating from human activities have existed for millennia, e.g., smoke from combustion and lint from garments, but the recent development of industry and combustion-based engine transportation has profoundly increased anthropogenic particulate pollution. Significantly, technological advancement has also changed the character of particulate pollution, increasing the proportion of nanometer-sized particles-“nanoparticles”-and expanding the variety of chemical compositions. Recent epidemiological studies have shown a strong correlation between particulate air pollution levels, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, various cancers, and mortality. Adverse effects of nanoparticles on human health depend on individual factors such as genetics and existing disease, as well as exposure, and nanoparticle chemistry, size, shape, agglomeration state, and electromagnetic properties. Animal and human studies show that inhaled nanoparticles are less efficiently removed than larger particles by the macrophage clearance mechanisms in the lungs, causing lung damage, and that nanoparticles can translocate through the circulatory, lymphatic, and nervous systems to many tissues and organs, including the brain. The key to understanding the toxicity of nanoparticles is that their minute size, smaller than cells and cellular organelles, allows them to penetrate these basic biological structures, disrupting their normal function. Examples of toxic effects include tissue inflammation, and altered cellular redox balance toward oxidation, causing abnormal function or cell death. The manipulation of matter at the scale of atoms, “nanotechnology,” is creating many new materials with characteristics not always easily predicted from current knowledge. Within the nearly limitless diversity of these materials, some happen to be toxic to biological systems, others are relatively benign, while others confer health benefits. Some of these materials have desirable characteristics for industrial applications, as nanostructured materials often exhibit beneficial properties, from UV absorbance in sunscreen to oil-less lubrication of motors. A rational science-based approach is needed to minimize harm caused by these materials, while supporting continued study and appropriate industrial development. As current knowledge of the toxicology of “bulk” materials may not suffice in reliably predicting toxic forms of nanoparticles, ongoing and expanded study of “nanotoxicity” will be necessary. For nanotechnologies with clearly associated health risks, intelligent design of materials and devices is needed to derive the benefits of these new technologies while limiting adverse health impacts. Human exposure to toxic nanoparticles can be reduced through identifying creation-exposure pathways of toxins, a study that may someday soon unravel the mysteries of diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Reduction in fossil fuel combustion would have a large impact on global human exposure to nanoparticles, as would limiting deforestation and desertification. While nanotoxicity is a relatively new concept to science, this review reveals the result of life’s long history of evolution in the presence of nanoparticles, and how the human body, in particular, has adapted to defend itself against nanoparticulate intruders.