Study shows that we've been exposed to nanoparticles for thousands of years


October 26, 2011

A new study suggests that for thousands of years, humans have been exposed to nanoparticles shed by metal items such as silver cutlery (Photo: Rudolph de Salis)

A new study suggests that for thousands of years, humans have been exposed to nanoparticles shed by metal items such as silver cutlery (Photo: Rudolph de Salis)

Nanoparticles have been a key part of numerous recent technological advances. Biofuels, solar cells, medical imaging systems and even sunscreen - there's virtually no field of science or technology that they couldn't potentially transform. There are concerns however, about the risks posed by the countless tiny particles of materials such as silver, gold and titanium dioxide that are now entering our environment and our bodies, but a recent University of Oregon study suggests that if not completely harmless, nanoparticles are at least nothing new. In fact, it states, humans have been exposed to them for millennia.

Using transmission electron microscopes, University of Oregon chemists captured what they claim are never-before-seen images of naturally-occurring metal nanoparticles, formed when silver items such as wire, jewelry and cutlery come into contact with other surfaces. When deposited and observed on electron microscope slides, these particles were seen to change in size, shape and population within just a few hours. These changes were particularly pronounced when the nanoparticles were exposed to humid air, water and light.

The scientists have concluded two things based on their observations.

First of all, they believe that the potential dangers posed by different types of nanoparticles should not be determined based on how small they are. While larger particles initially may not be as invasive as smaller ones, the study indicates that those larger particles can and will break down and multiply.

Secondly, the study suggests that humans have been in the presence of nanoparticles at least since our species first started processing iron ore - they have been transferred to our skin from bracelets, and dropped into our mouths from forks and spoons. "The generation of nanoparticles from objects that humans have contacted for millennia suggests that humans have been exposed to these nanoparticles throughout time," stated chemist James E. Hutchison, who co-authored a paper on the research. "Rather than raise concern, I think this suggests that we would have already linked exposure to these materials to health hazards if there were any."

What isn't clear, however, is how many more nanoparticles are currently entering our environment, now that we're mass-producing them. It could perhaps be countered that comparing the amount of particles shed by things like cutlery to the amount now present in modern technology, is equivalent to comparing the earth's natural background radiation to the levels now present at Fukushima.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the topic.

The University of Oregon paper was recently published in the journal ACS Nano.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Next thing I suppose you\'ll be telling your readers about a benevolent force that sprays aluminum, barium and other \"chafe\" overhead, puts flouride in water, manipulates currency valuation, and generally makes the world go \'round. Hmmmm...seems generally what religion has been doing for millennia.

Janet Bratter

If they give out a Nobel award for the discovery of \"dust\" these guys have a chance....

Why am I getting the impression that within a generation all this new good skyence stuff like this will have us living in caves again.


Come on you cannot compare silver nano with titanium one! We have known about silver properties for a long time, elites used to eat only with silver cutleries for a good reason...We can cure most bacterial infections with silver, even speed up skin growth and more! The future shall hold great things for us if only we can see the bigger picture!

Audrey Twerdy

Well we can certainly limit the exposure through cleaning and vacuuming regularly.

Andreja Sinadinovic Vijatovic
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