(Published Sept. 4, 2003)
THE REVOLUTION, PT. 3: ULTRAFINES
A revolution is sweeping through science and technology,
blending cognitive science (how the brain works), biotechnology
(manipulation of genes), information technology, and
nanotechnology, or nanotech for short. The engineers who are
masterminding this revolution explain that it is "essential to
the future of humanity"[1, pg. 22] because it holds the promise
of "world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a
higher level of compassion and accomplishment."[1, pg. 6] They
say it may be "a watershed in history to rank with the
invention of agriculture and the Industrial Revolution."[1, pg.
20] The ultimate aim of the revolution is not so new: the
"conquest of nature." [1, pg. 80]
The revolution is driven by the convergence of four
technologies (nano, bio, info, cogno), but here we focus again
on only one of the four -- nanotech -- because it is becoming
the foundation stone of bio and info sciences,[1, pg. 71]
because it has been largely ignored by the media, and because
it is galloping forward at breakneck speed. It is no
exaggeration to say that the field of nanotech is gripped by a
"gold rush" mentality. Any day of the week, take a look at
now.com/ to catch a glimpse of the gold rush in
Nanotech is named for the nanometer, a unit of measure, a
billionth of a meter, one one-thousandth of a micrometer. The
Oxford English Dictionary defines nanotechnology as "the branch
of technology that deals with dimensions and tolerances of less
than 100 nanometres, esp. the manipulation of individual atoms
In 2000, President Clinton created the National Nanotech
Initiative, which is now funded at the level of $700 million
per year -- the third largest public research program in the
U.S., after the war on cancer and the star wars missile defense
program. (See Rachel's #772 and #773.) In every state in the
U.S., nanotech proponents are commandeering tax dollars to
subsidize "the next big thing." Many states are hoping to
establish their own "Nano Valley" as an entrepreneurial wild
west modeled on Silicon Valley before the bubble burst.
In March of this year, Small Times magazine said the states
with the greatest nanotech potential are California,
Massachusetts, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Maryland, New York,
Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania, with Colorado, New Jersey,
North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Washington state close
behind. The National Science Foundation predicts that
nanotech will be a trillion-dollar industry by 2015, just 12
years from now. Nanotech is advancing upon us at warp speed.
This week we will focus on only one aspect of nanotech: the
environmental and human health effects of nano particles, which
are particles 100 nanometers (0.1 micrometers) or less in
diameter. As we saw in Rachel's #772, the intentional
manufacture of nano particles is already under way, and this
new industry is gearing up worldwide. Nano particles go by
different names, such as nanodots, nanotubes, buckyballs, and
buckminsterfullerenes, among others.
According to the Etc Group, which follows nanotech developments
carefully, an estimated 140 companies are now producing nano
particles in powders, sprays, and coatings that are being used
in a variety of products, including sunscreens, automobile
parts, tennis rackets, scratch-proof eye glasses,
stain-repellent fabrics, self-cleaning windows, and more.[3,
pg. 2] Mitsubishi Chemical in Japan has reportedly begun
construction of a plant to manufacture nanotubes at the rate of
120 tons per year, with plans to increase output to 1500 tons
per year by 2007. The U.S. government's space agency, NASA,
plans to spend the next five years scaling up the production of
nanotubes. [1, pg. 50]
One of the most important characteristics of nano particles is
their huge surface-to-volume ratio. The smaller something is,
the larger its surface area is, in comparison to its volume.
Because nano particles are so small, they have an enormous
surface area, relative to their volume. Drug companies are
planning to take advantage of those large surfaces -- for
example, covering nano particles with drugs for targeted
delivery into the interiors of our cells. The smaller the size
of the particle, the larger the load of drugs it can carry
(larger, relative to the particle's volume).
Unfortunately, the large surface area of tiny particles also
makes them dangerous for at least two reasons: first, the large
surfaces alone promote the reaction of oxygen with human (or
animal) tissue, creating free radicals.
"Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms with an odd
(unpaired) number of electrons and can be formed when oxygen
interacts with certain molecules. Once formed these highly
reactive radicals can start a chain reaction, like dominoes.
Their chief danger comes from the damage they can do when they
react with important cellular components such as DNA, or the
cell membrane [the cell's outer casing]. Cells may function
poorly or die if this occurs," explains Dr. Mark Jenkins at
In sum, the large surface of nano particles offers an ideal
place which oxygen reactions can occur in the airways and
lungs, resulting in the formation of free radicals with
subsequent cell damage or cell death, followed by inflammation.
The second danger from nano particles arises when they float
freely in the air, where their large surface area provides a
sticky place where metals and hydrocarbons attach themselves.
The smaller the size of the particle, the larger the load of
metals and hydrocarbons it can carry (larger, relative to the
What do we know about health effects of nano particles?
It turns out that we already have a fair amount of data on the
dangers of airborne nano particles -- but researchers don't
call them nano particles. They call them ultrafines. Nano
particles and ultrafines are the same thing -- particles with
an average diameter of 100 nanometers (0.1 micrometers) or
Scientists have known for more than a decade that fine and
ultrafine particles in the air create haze and kill large
numbers of humans. Fines and ultrafines are produced by
fossil-fuel power plants, incinerators, cement kilns, and
diesel engines, among other sources. As early as 1991, Dr. Joel
Schwartz of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (now at
Harvard) estimated that fine particles were killing 60,000
people each year in the U.S. That shocking estimate has since
been confirmed and reconfirmed and is now widely accepted.
Fine particles are defined as those with a diameter of 10,000
nanometers (10 micrometers) or less. Ultrafines are 100 times
smaller than fines.
Today, researchers are examining the properties of ultrafines
and there seems to be little doubt that they are the major
killers in haze. Studies in Los Angeles, California reveal that
ultrafines are 10 to 50 times as damaging to lung tissue,
compared to larger fine particles.
Since 1991, scientists have been wondering whether fine and
ultrafine particles cause harm because of their size alone, or
because they carry metals and hydrocarbons deep into the lung.
Researchers today believe that, in the case of ultrafines, the
answer is both.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency refers to fines as PM 10
(short for "particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in
diameter"). By 1996, EPA became convinced that PM 2.5
(particles with diameters of 2.5 micrometers [2500 nanometers]
or less) were far more dangerous than PM 10, and the agency
proposed rules to control PM 2.5 air pollution. Corporations
immediately sued in court to "get government off our backs" and
to fulfill their fiduciary duty to shareholders by every legal
means, even though that duty in this instance entails killing
tens of thousands of anonymous citizens each year. In 2001,
after a 5-year court battle, EPA won in the U.S. Supreme Court,
but the agency, chastened by corporate encounters, has shelved
its plan for controlling PM 2.5 air pollution.
Meanwhile, new studies are piling up showing that nano
particles (ultrafines, which in EPA terminology would be PM
0.1) are by far the most dangerous of all.
EPA does not collect data on nano particles in any systematic
way, and has announced no plans to control them. Meanwhile the
nano particle corporations and NASA are ramping up industrial
operations to manufacture ultrafines in ton quantities. It
appears that the stage is being set for major new trouble and
an escalation of the killing.
The picture continues to develop, but current research shows
that nano particles in the lung cause the formation of free
radicals, which in turn, cause lung disease, and cardiovascular
disease. Furthermore, nano particles carry metals and
carcinogenic hydrocarbons deep into the lung, where they
exacerbate asthma and other serious breathing problems. In
addition, nano particles combined with metals can pass directly
into the brain where they promote the formation of waxy amyloid
plaques, which are the signature feature of Alzheimer's
In Fresno, Calif., Kent E. Pinkerton at Univ. of Calif. Davis
found from autopsies that "outwardly robust people routinely
harbor damage in their lungs' small airways, setting the stage
for respiratory and cardiovascular disease." The bronchioles
were scarred with fibrosis and an abnormal thickening,
apparently caused by "the ravages of free radicals." [6,9]
Subsequent exposure of rats to ultrafine particles at levels
found in Fresno on a bad day revealed many dead cells in the
rats' lungs, large numbers of inflammatory cells (neutrophils),
and destruction of macrophages -- which are cells that promote
health by actively removing foreign material from the
lungs. In other words, ultrafines kill off the lung's
natural defenses, then create their own unique form of damage,
promoting free radicals, cell death, inflammation and
eventually cardiovascular disease.
Pinkerton's findings were confirmed by a study of the lungs of
non-smoking women in Mexico City and in Vancouver, British
Columbia, which revealed extensive lung damage from exposure to
dirty Mexico City air, but not clean Vancouver air.  The
small airways of the Mexican women "were very abnormal," with
fibrosis and thickening.
Researcher Ken Donaldson at the University of Edinborough in
Scotland has studied particles of pure titanium dioxide and
pure carbon. At 10 micrometers diameter, they cause no damage
to rat lungs. But when they are crushed into ultrafines "they
become highly inflammogenic to the lungs," he told Science
News.[6, 12, 13] In other words, carbon nano particles, without
any pollutants attached (no metals, no hydrocarbons), cause
lung damage by themselves. Their size alone is harmful.
Donaldson conducted similar experiments on ultrafine particles
of pure styrene, with similar results, showing that nano size
alone is a danger. This clearly indicates that the manufacture
of nano particles will be a threat to workers, and any
particles released into outside air will be a public health
menace. It is worth pointing out the obvious: The smaller
particles become, the harder they are to control and contain.
Nano particles floating in the air will not remain pure for
long. Metals and hydrocarbons (from combustion sources like
incinerators, cement kilns, fossil-fuel power plants, and
diesel engines) will quickly coat their large surfaces.
It is now known that the deadly effects of fine and ultrafine
particles aren't restricted to the lung, but occur in the
cardiovascular system and brain. Renaud Vincent and colleagues
at Health Canada (the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. National
Institutes of Health) clarified the mechanism of cardiovascular
damage by exposing healthy volunteers to high levels of fine
particles -- the levels you might find in a city with dirty
air.[14, 15, 6]
Vincent found that exposure to ultrafine particles doubles the
concentration of a small protein (called endothelin) in the
blood stream. Endothelin increases blood pressure. The spike in
endothelin levels can be tolerated by a healthy subject, but
may kill a person who is already suffering from atherosclerosis
(hardening of the arteries).
Importantly, the spike in endothelin concentration only occurs
when subjects are exposed to fine and ultrafine particles that
have metals or hydrocarbons attached to them. If the particles
are purified before the humans are exposed to them, they have
no effect on endothelin levels. Thus it seems to be the
combination of ultrafine particles and metals and/or
hydrocarbons that increases endothelin.
Other researchers have also been examining the effects of fine
and ultrafine particles on cardiovascular health. Scientists at
the Harvard School of Public Health exposed dogs to fine and
ultrafine particles, then simulated heart attacks in the dogs
by using a surgically-implanted balloon to temporarily shut off
a coronary artery. Dogs that had been breathing ultrafines
could not compensate for the blocked artery -- which may help
explain why humans who have heart attacks on a bad-air day are
more likely to die than people having heart attacks where the
air is cleaner.
Cardiovascular disease and heart attacks are not the only
concern arising from exposure to fine and ultrafine particles
in the air. A University of North Carolina research team
working with dogs living in Mexico City has shown that exposure
to ultrafine air pollution causes brain damage. Lilian
Calderon-Garcideunas found that ultrafine particles carry
metals such as vanadium and nickel into the dogs' brains
through their noses. The fine particles break down the barriers
that normally prevent contaminants passing into the brain.[6,
Dogs are often used as models for the study of cognitive
impairments that accompany old age in humans. Some dogs aged 10
and over develop the waxy plaques that are characteristic of
Alzheimer's disease. Calderon-Garcideunas's study of 200 dogs
in Mexico City reveals that the animals breathing ultrafine
particles develop waxy beta-amyloid plaques in the brain before
they are a year old.[6, 17]
Calderon-Garcideunas told science writer Janet Raloff that her
findings are "definitely worrisome" because she has examined
the noses of humans in Mexico City and found evidence of a
breakdown of nasal tissue, similar to that found in dogs.
U.S. EPA researchers and colleagues in Germany have found that
metals attached to fine and ultrafine particles greatly
exacerbate asthma. First they examined children in a German
city where the air is contaminated with fine and ultrafine
particles mixed with metals. Compared to children living in a
rural German town where the air is relatively clean, the urban
children showed strongly allergic reactions. The researchers
then exposed mice to the two kinds of air that the children
were breathing. They reported that mice exposed to
metal-contaminated ultrafine particles developed strong
allergic and asthmatic reactions in their airways.
Using isolated lung cells, researchers found that ultrafine
particles from Los Angeles air (a) carry far more toxic
combustion byproducts per unit weight than do larger particles
(no surprise because of surface-to-volume ratio); and (b) enter
cells and settle in the mitochondria, which are the cells'
source of power. Ultrafine particles turn the mitochondria into
"functionless bags," researcher Andre Nel told Science News,
killing the cells they were powering.[7, 6]
In sum the nanotech industry and the U.S. government are
rapidly ramping up a new industrial capacity to manufacture ton
quantities of ultrafine particles, very similar to particles
already known to be killing tens of thousands of people in the
U.S. each year. The complete catalog of harm from these
particles remains to be written, but we already know that they
cause or aggravate asthma and cardiovascular disease, damage
the small airways of animals, adults, and children, carry
metals and cancer-causing combustion byproducts deep into the
lungs and even into the brain where they promote the growth of
amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease.
We also know that the current regulatory system has proven to
be incapable of bringing particulate pollution under control
because of relentless opposition from corporations. As a matter
of law, corporations are required to put profits before public
health, so we can never expect them to do any better than they
are doing today, until we change the law.
Clearly, in the case of nano particles, we have reasonable
suspicion of harm, and we have some remaining scientific
uncertainty. Therefore we have an ethical duty to take
preventive (precautionary) action. If there ever was a proper
time to invoke the precautionary principle, this is it.
 Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, editors,
Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance
(Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, June, 2002.
Available at target="_blank">http://rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=208 but
the file is 3.7 megabytes.
 Mark Jenkins, "Antioxidants and Free Radicals," 1996,
available at target="_blank">http://www.rice.edu/--jenky/sports/antiox.html and
at target="_blank">http://rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=299 .
 Ning Li and other, "Ultrafine Particulate Pollutants Induce
Oxidative Stress and Mitochondrial Damage," Environmental
Health Perspectives Vol. 111, No. 4 (April 2003), pgs. 455-460.
Available at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?
 Janet Raloff, "High court gives EPA a victory," Science
News Vol. 159, No. 10 (March 10, 2001), pg. 159.
 Kent E. Pinkerton and others, "Distribution of Particulate
Matter and Tissue Remodeling in the Human Lung," Environmental
Health Perspectives Vol. 108, No. 11 (November, 2000), pgs.
1063-1069. Available at
 Kevin R. Smith, "Airborne Particles of the California
Central Valley Alter the Lungs of Healthy Adult Rats,"
Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 111, No. 7 (June 2003),
pgs. 902-908. Available at
 Andrew Churg and others, "Chronic Exposure to High Levels
of Particulate Air Pollution and Small Airway Remodeling,"
Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 111, No. 5 (May 2003),
pgs. 714-718. Available at
 L.C. Renwick and others, "Impairment of Alveolar
Macrophage Phagocytosis by Ultrafine Particles," Toxicology and
Applied Pharmacology Vol. 172 (2001), pgs. 119-127. Available
at target="_blank">http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=293 .
 D.M. Brown and others, "Size-Dependent Proinflammatory
Effects of Ultrafine Polystyrene Particles: A Role for Surface
Area and Oxidative Stress in the Enhanced Activity of the
Ultrafines," Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology Vol. 175
(2001), pgs. 191-199. Available at
 Robert D. Brook and others, "Inhalation of Fine
Particulate Air Pollution and Ozone Causes Acute Arterial
Vasoconstriction in Healthy Adults," Circulation Vol. 105
(2002), pgs. 1534-1536. Available at
 Leo Bouthillier and others, "Acute Effects of Inhaled
Urban Particles and Ozone; Lung Morphology, Macrophage
Activity, and Plasma Endothelin-1," American Journal of
Pathology Vol. 153, No. 6 (Dec. 1998), pgs. 1873-1884.
Available at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?
 Gregory A. Wellenius and others, "Inhalation of
Concentrated Ambient Air Particles Exacerbates Myocardial
Ischemia in Conscious Dogs," Environmental Health Perspectives
Vol. 111, No. 4 (April 2003), pgs. 402-408. Available at
 Lilian Calderon-Garciduenas and others, "Air Pollution and
Brain Damage," Toxicologic Pathology Vol. 30, No. 3 (2002),
pgs. 373-389. Available at
 Stephen H. Gavett and others, "Metal Composition of
Ambient PM 2.5 Influences Severity of Allergic Airways Disease
in Mice," Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 111, No. 12
(September 2003), pgs. 1471-1477. Available at
 Robert Hinkley, "Twenty Eight Words to Redefine Corporate
Duties," Multinational Monitor Vol. 23, Nos. 7 and 8
(July/August 2002); available at
And be sure
to see The Model Uniform Code for Corporate Citizenship,
available at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?
 On the precautionary principle, see