Exploring the Potential of Nanoparticles: their Environmental Concerns and Benefits

Nanoparticles are very small particles that are typically less than 100 nanometers in size. Perhaps unknown to the general public, nanoparticle materials can be found in a multitude of products that humans interact with and use on a daily basis. These products include cosmetics, skincare, sunscreens, fabrics, eyeglasses, computer/electronic hardware, lenses, displays, window films, nanoscale sensors, polymer composites, sports equipment, bicycle frames, helmets, machine parts, degreasers, luggage, housings for devices, storage tanks, coatings, cellulose nanomaterials, tires, construction materials, packaging, beverage/food containers, food additives, bio-energy, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, automotive, aerospace, batteries, solar panels, fuel cells, fuel additives, sensors, ceramic coatings, lubricants, catalysis, stain removers, air purifiers, air filters, antibacterial cleansers, paints, contrast agents, sealants, 3D printing, semiconductor nanocrystals, and quantum qubits, to name a few. With innovations in technology, software, and hardware improving exponentially, it is not far-fetched to assume that nanotechnology will soon be an integral part of our everyday lives. As semiconductors, microchips, mechanical and, electronic tolerances become smaller and tighter. It is evident that nanomaterials will play a crucial role in the future of our societies and the technology we use. For example, in creating qubits, the building blocks of quantum computing, and all other related mechanical and electronic components needed to satiate the new ideas of emerging technologies.

Nanoparticles can be made from a wide variety of materials, such as metals, carbon groups, non-metals like ceramics, polymers, and biological molecules. Nanoparticles can be classified by their origin. Presently there are two origins of nanoparticles. Natural occurring nanoparticles and created naturally through volcanic activity, desert dust, sea spray, cosmic dust, forest fires, weathering, and erosion to name a few. Anthropogenic nanoparticles on the other hand are directly or indirectly created by human intervention and technology.
Typically, nanoparticles can range from 1 to 100 nanometers in size, meaning one-billionth of a meter or 10^-9, and be either one, two, or three-dimensional. The particles are of interest to researchers, product developers in different industry sectors, and manufacturing due to their altered properties that distinguish them differently from larger particles of the same material. For example, nanoparticles have a higher surface-to-volume ratio, giving them unique properties such as increased optical, magnetic, chemical, conductive, thermal, lightness, strength, and durability features in varying degrees depending on the nanoparticle material characteristics. Nanoparticles are also known as zero-dimensional nanomaterials, meaning that all dimensions fall within the nanoscale, no dimension exceeds the 100 nm mark. This contrasts with one-dimensional nanomaterials, such as nanowires and nanotubes, which have one dimension larger than the nanoscale, and two-dimensional nanomaterials, such as self-assembled monolayer films, which have two dimensions larger than the nanoscale. The larger particles of the same material do not exhibit these characteristics. Hence why nanoparticles are interesting and pose a lot of possibilities to improve and upgrade our technologies and their features. Thus nanoparticles have far too many potential benefits to ignore, however, as with all inventions, there is also concern about the potential short and long-term impacts on the environment and human health. Therefore, scientists are studying the toxicology of nanoparticles and developing methods to detect and measure their presence, concentrations, and cycles.

Environmental concerns
With the dynamic population growth in the last 100 years, from around 2 billion in 1920 to a little over 8 billion humans in 2023, the steady increase of global deforestation, destruction of habitats, extinction of species, and possible climate change in the short span of 100 years, are having a profound effect on our little planet and, for now, still our only home. It is therefore logical that there is a delicate relationship and nurtured balance to be maintained between the global environment and our technological introductions to it. This includes paying attention to the well-being and continued existence of human, animal, plant life, and overall ecosystems on this planet.

As world populations and related services and industries grow, they inevitably affect the diversity of these global ecosystems. Polluting the terra firma, the moving sediments, the water bodies, the atmosphere, and introducing toxins and waste into the food chain,  has and is having a dire impact on the sustainability of life in all ecosystems. It is thus an important endeavor to look closely at new technologies such as nanoparticles, and at how they could potentially have, either accumulating detrimental effects on the environment or can be utilized and have a positive effect improving life as a whole.

Nanoparticles and the Environment
The late 1980s saw the emergence and swift advancement of nanoparticle technologies, leading to the widespread use of nanomaterials in the aforementioned areas that greatly improved industry production methods and the consumers’ overall daily lives. However, as the full potential of nanomaterials is being realized, the negative consequences, referred to as nano pollution, are becoming increasingly apparent. Human activities have disrupted the cycle of nano-sized particles in the Earth’s biogeochemical systems, adding anthropogenic material to the mix. This has led to an increased release of anthropogenic nanoparticle emissions in the atmosphere, soils, seas, lakes, and rivers. These foreign nanoparticles embed and attach themselves to naturally occurring nanoparticles and thereby get integrated into all types of ecosystems, potentially having an environmental impact that could be difficult to adequately detect or control due to the small size of nanomaterials.
It’s worth noting that the majority of nanoparticles present in the environment are not a result of human activities, but naturally occurring, such as the previous examples of volcanic ash and desert dust. The anthropogenic particle emissions include but are not limited to combustion emissions from vehicles, aircraft, power plants, and industrial processes, dust and particulate matter generated by construction and mining activities, engineered nanoparticles from consumer products, agricultural pesticides, and fertilizers.

Impact on human biology
Nanoparticles enter the body and interact with tissues and cells directly. However, the ways in which nanoparticles interact with living organism tissues is not yet fully understood. The complexity arises from the nanoparticles’ ability to bind with biological materials and alter their surface characteristics based on their surroundings. Biomedical applications of nanotubes include silicon dioxide nanotubes, boron nitride nanotubes, titanium dioxide nanotubes, organic nanotubes, and carbon nanotubes, which are currently the most widely used material.
Nanoparticle risk identification is not simple and straightforward. Intracellular mechanisms and pathways are difficult to understand. Particles and nanoparticle interactions can cause changes to the particles’ surface morphology and characteristics depending on the environment and interactions with other particles. Some ways nanoparticles may impact human health can occur when particles enter cells and interfere with normal cell function, which can lead to cell death or general dysfunction. Other avenues of interaction are with DNA, whereby genetic mutations could be triggered, causing cancer, other diseases, or inflammation. That inflammation could also trigger possible tissue damage, heart disease, diabetes, and inflammatory immune responses. Inhaled nanoparticles can agglomerate in the lungs, causing inflammation, lung damage, asthma, and possibly chronic pulmonary disease. for example, some studies have suggested that inhaling high levels of titanium dioxide dust may increase the risk of lung cancer. Finally, topically applied nanoparticles such as sunscreen or other cosmetics could penetrate the skin and cause skin irritation, allergies, and other skin diseases.
A critical perspective is to understand that the toxicity of nanoparticles could be influenced by various factors, such as particle sizes, morphology, chemical composition, volume, duration of exposure, and the individual’s immune response triggers and sensitivity. Meaning, that more research is required to fully understand the biological interactions and future symbiosis of nanomaterial and technology being fully implemented in healthcare.

Agricultural Impact
Nanoparticles have the potential to affect agriculture in a variety of ways, offering benefits such as increased crop yields through the use of nanoparticles as pesticides to protect against diseases and pests, improved nutrient delivery through the use of nanoparticles as a means of delivering fertilizers to plants in a more targeted and efficient manner, enhancement of plant growth through the influence of factors such as water retention and photosynthesis, and improved food safety by protecting food products from bacteria and other foreign contaminants. However, there are also risks associated with the use of nanoparticles in agriculture, such as the environmental contamination caused by the release of nanoparticles into the soil and potential harm to aquatic and terrestrial organisms, human exposure to nanoparticles through handling treated crops or during agricultural activities, and unintended consequences such as the development of resistance build-up in pests and bacteria, which could lead to a need for more toxic pesticides in the future. The use of nanoparticles in agriculture is still in the early stages of development. Still, research has shown that certain nanoparticles, such as silver and zinc oxide, can be effective against plant pathogens and pests. Additionally, there is also the potential for nanoparticles to be used as a means of delivering beneficial microorganisms to crops, which can improve soil health and increase crop yields. However, more research is needed to fully understand the potential risks and benefits of using nanoparticles in agriculture, and it is crucial to consider the safety of workers who may be handling and applying nanoparticles to crops, as well as the potential impact on non-target organisms such as bees and other beneficial insects.
Furthermore, there is also a concern about the potential for nanoparticles to leach into groundwater, surface water, and soil and the effect it could have on the environment and eventually human health. The international community is working on the development of guidelines and regulations to ensure the safe use of nanotechnology in agriculture while maintaining the benefits it can bring. It is essential that any potential benefits of using nanoparticles in agriculture are weighed against the potential risks and that appropriate safety measures are put in place to minimize any negative impact.

Nanoparticle Regulations and Standards
That is why formulating sound regulations for nanoparticles is important as they have unique properties that can make them potentially hazardous to human health and the environment. The EU regulations help to ensure that products containing nanoparticles are safe for use and that workers handling them are protected. Environmental protection is also important as anthropogenic nanoparticles can have negative effects on the environment, such as contaminating soil and water, and harming aquatic and terrestrial organisms. Regulations will help to minimize potential risks and protect the environment. Transparency is also crucial as regulations help to ensure that consumers and other stakeholders have access to information about the potential risks and benefits of products containing nanoparticles, which helps formulate better-informed decisions about their use. regulations will also support innovations as it helps to create a level playing field for companies developing and using nanoparticles so that new and innovative products can be developed and brought to market in a responsible and sustainable way. A focus on global harmonization and communication is paramount as regulations and standards often differ in other countries. This incongruousness can create barriers in trade and make it difficult for companies to operate globally. Harmonized regulations help to create a common framework for the safe use of nanoparticles, facilitate international trade, and build on global sustainability.
In Europe, for example, the regulation of nanoparticles is governed by several laws and regulations, such as the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) which is a European Union regulation that aims to improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks posed by chemicals. It applies to all chemical substances, including nanoparticles, and requires manufacturers and importers to register their chemicals with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and provide comprehensive data sheets on the hazards, risks, and safe use of the substance. Another regulation is the Classification, Labelling, and Packaging Regulation (CLP), which classifies and labels chemicals, including nanoparticles, according to their hazards and requires the provision of safety data sheets for chemicals, including nanoparticles, which provide information on the hazards, risks, and safe use of the substance. The Biocidal Products Regulation applies to biocidal products, including those containing nanoparticles, which are intended to protect humans, animals, materials, or articles against harmful organisms, like pests or bacteria. The Medical Devices Regulation applies to medical devices that contain or consist of nanoparticles, which are intended to diagnose, prevent, monitor, treat or alleviate disease or injury. The Cosmetics Regulation applies to cosmetic products, which include nanoparticles, it requires that these products be safe for human use, be properly labeled, and have undergone a safety assessment before being placed on the market. Lastly, The Toy Safety Directive applies to toys, which include nanoparticles. It requires that toys be safe for children to use and be properly labeled. Being such a relatively new technology the formulation of nanoparticle regulations is still an evolving field. It is important for researchers and policymakers to continue studying the potential environmental impacts of nanoparticles and to develop regulations that can help protect against any potentially harmful accumulating environmental effects and or health risks.

Beneficial nanoparticle utilization
As with all products, some nanoparticles can have beneficial properties, while others can have beneficial properties but also have undesirable side effects. The toxicity of nanoparticles is a complex and active area of research, and findings are still evolving. The potential risks and benefits of nanoparticles are still being studied by researchers worldwide, and the information provided here should be considered general information. It is worth noting that the use of nanoparticles in agriculture, food, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, additive manufacturing, coatings, food industries, and others is still in a new and evolving field, and more innovation and research is needed to fully understand the potential risks and benefits associated with their implementation.
Having said that, nanoparticles have the potential to have a positive impact in various fields, such as medicine, where they can be used in targeted drug delivery systems to deliver drugs more efficiently and effectively to specific cells or tissues in the body, improving the effectiveness of treatments for diseases such as cancer and improving the overall quality of life for patients. In the energy sector, they can be used to improve the performance and efficiency of energy-related products, such as solar cells, batteries, and fuel cells, which can help to reduce energy consumption and decrease the environmental impact of energy production. Additionally, they can be used in environmental remediation, such as cleaning up contaminated soil and water and improving the efficiency of water filtration systems and air purification systems. In materials science sectors, nanoparticles can be used to improve the strength and durability of materials, such as in the production of stronger and more lightweight metals and composites for consumer products, industry, construction, vehicles, and aerospace. Nanoparticles in agriculture can be used to improve crop yields, deliver nutrients, and improve the safety and shelf life of food products. Moreover, in cosmetics and personal care, nanoparticles can be used to improve the texture and appearance of cosmetics and personal care products, as well as make them more effective and give added protection. However, to emphasize again, more research is needed to fully understand their potential benefits and to develop effective ways to use them for the betterment of society and humanity as a whole.