Nanoscale materials are substances that have at least one dimension less than 100 nanometers. They possess unique optical, magnetic, or electrical properties. One example of these materials is ultrafine particulate matter—very fine, tiny particles of matter.
Nanoscale materials are engineered from nearly any substance. A few examples include:
- Semiconductor nanocrystals (tiny light-emitting particles on the nanometer scale)
- Organic dendrimers (repetitively branched molecules)
- Carbon fullerenes ("Buckyballs"—molecules made up of 60 carbon atoms arranged in the shape of a sphere)
- Carbon nanotubes (cylindrical carbon nanostructures)
Nanoscale materials have appeared in commerce as industrial and consumer products and as drug delivery formulations. In fact, the global demand for nanomaterials and devices is measured as being in the multi-trillions of dollars.
Commercial applications and resultant opportunities for human exposure may differ substantially for "nanoscale" compared with "bulk" materials. Surface properties are changed by coating nanoscale particles with different materials, but surface chemistry is also influenced by the size of the particle—making the impact of size an important factor. This interaction of surface area and particle composition in eliciting biological responses adds an extra dimension of complexity in evaluating potential adverse events that may result from exposure to these materials.
NTP Studies & Findings
NTP scientists are concerned with the potential toxicity of nanoscale materials, in particular, how and where these materials interact with the body, and what possible health concerns could result from the interaction. Current projects look at the size, shape, surface chemistry and composition of these materials.
Three core agencies that contribute to NTP—the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)—coordinate together to study several classes of nanoscale materials. Specific classes of nanoscale materials covered by NTP activities are:
|Carbon Fullerenes (Buckyballs)||
NTP inhalation studies on fullerene C60 were conducted through an NIEHS testing contract. Two 13-week inhalation studies of fullerene C60 were completed. Additional studies of fullerene C60 have examined potential impacts on the immune system. These studies of rodent lungs involved two distinct particle sizes of C60 atmospheres. Studies examined:
Fullerene C60 was evaluated under a NIOSH-NIEHS Interagency agreement to provide a better assessment of US worker exposures and occupational health concerns.
The multiwalled carbon nanotubes (MWCNT) project examines the impact of nanotube length and diameter. Studies analyzed the toxicity of multiwalled carbon nanotubes in the lungs of animal models.
The initial phase of the project included the procurement and physical and chemical characterization of 24 commercially available carbon nanotubes to evaluate the diversity of commercially available materials. Results from this phase were used for selection of a specific test article for additional tests. Based on toxicity and clearance data, a 30-day study was designed to evaluate immunotoxicity at lower atmosphere concentrations. In addition, a chronic 2-year toxicity and carcinogenicity study in rats and mice exposed to these low concentrations of MWCNT is also ongoing.
Carbon nanotube exposure has been evaluated under a NIOSH-NIEHS Interagency agreement to provide a better assessment of US worker exposures and occupational health concerns.
|Nanoscale Crystalline Cellulose||
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) staff, supported by a NIOSH-NIEHS Interagency agreement, conducted in vitro physicochemical analyses of a variety of micro and nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) to assess dissolution and durability. Based on the persistence of nanocrystalline silver, NTP is developing plans for future in vivo studies of nanocrystalline cellulose.
As part of another interagency agreement with NIOSH, NTP is committed to an industry-wide exposure assessment as well as epidemiology studies of U.S. manufacturers of engineered carbonaceous nanomaterials (ECN). The information collected includes:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration nominated nanoscale silver (n-Ag) for study by the NTP based on two factors:
The n-Ag project was conducted by scientists at the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR). In vitro toxicity and toxicokinetic studies on the effect of particle size of nanosilver pharmacokinetics were completed. Subchronic, or short-term, 13-week studies on different sizes of n-Ag have also been completed.
|Cadmium Selenide Based "Quantum Dots"||
Staff at NCTR evaluated the kinetics of tissue distribution following intradermal injection of quantum dots.
Scientists also evaluated kinetics and tissue distribution after dermal exposure of quantum dots to intact and dermabraded mice. Results showed that absorption of nanoscale materials through the skin depends on skin barrier quality, and that lack of an epidermis provides access to quantum dot penetration.
NTP studies on nanoscale titanium dioxide have been conducted as part of the nanotechnology safety initiative. One study, together with other FDA-supported studies, examined the tissue distribution of titanium dioxide materials in animal models following skin exposure. Results indicated that intact skin is an effective barrier to titanium dioxide nanoscale materials.
Studies also examined the resulting protein expression in the lymph nodes of mice following titanium dioxide exposure.
Titanium dioxide was evaluated at NCTR supported by a NCTR-NIEHS Interagency agreement.
NIEHS Health Topic
- NIEHS Health Topic: Nanomaterials
Updated January 2023
Resources From Other Organizations
Informational resources on topics related to nanoscale materials and nanotechnologies are listed below.
- The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has a comprehensive page on nanoscale materials and seeks to develop new applications within the environmental health sciences. They also study the potential human health risks of nanoscale materials.
- The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is a federal, multi-agency research and development (R&D) initiative involving 20 departments and independent agencies working together toward the shared vision of a future in which nanoscale research leads to a revolution in technology and industry that advances society.
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is part of the US Department of Labor and provides resources on occupational safety in regards to nanotechnology.
- The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the CDC, leads the federal government safety initiative on nanotechnology.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates a broad spectrum of food and drug-related products—some of which include nanomaterials.
- EPA scientists research specific nanomaterials which may have implications for human and environmental health.
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