By Judith Bernal
Op-ed Article

Scientific evidence has linked exposure to nanoparticles and nanomaterials through air pollution to adverse health effects, such as dry cough, asthma, congested lung, or allergies. Respiratory diseases, however, are but among the many different conditions associated with pollution. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, particles less than 2.5 µm in diameter cause 800,000 premature deaths per year.

What Are Nanomaterials?

Nanomaterials are defined as materials with at least one dimension that is between one million and ten thousand times smaller than one millimeter (1 – 100 nm). Given their reduced size, nanomaterials can take on different properties, which have been exploited in countless applications. Some of the best-known commercial uses of nanoparticles are mentioned next: manufacture of cosmetics, sunscreens, deodorants, paint, lubricating oils, food additives, and coatings.

In the field of medicine, for instance, nanomaterials are used in the development of new dosage forms and diagnostic tools. However, turning to nanomaterials to improve our quality of life involves some risk.

With the introduction of new and more numerous nanomaterials, we are not only more exposed to them through contact with nanomaterial-containing products, but we are also indirectly affected given the increased accumulation of these particles in the environment. On our day-to-day lives, we are naturally exposed to a wide variety of these materials, which are released into the ecosystem as a result of processes such as wildfires, volcano eruptions, and clouds of dust. Increased exposure to nanomaterials can also be attributed to human activity, which includes the use of cars, industrial processes, power plant operations, agricultural activities, and even charcoal burning for barbecues and campfires.

So far, we know that the vast amount of air pollutants found in the atmosphere are classified into three groups: ultrafine (ten thousand times smaller than one millimeter), fine (one thousand times smaller than one millimeter), and coarse (bigger than one-thousandth of a millimeter). While the whole community is exposed to pollution, contact with nanoparticles is also associated with the type of industrial activity. In fact, each particular geographic location (airports, construction sites, quarries) varies in terms of the types and amounts of particles released into the atmosphere.

An Initiative to Identify and Regulate Nanomaterials across the Country

Prolonged exposure to particles less than 2.5 µm in diameter has been associated with increased risk of carcinogenic, kidney, lung, and cardiovascular diseases, among others. This has resulted in the need to assess the health and environmental impact of nanomaterials to regulate their use, manufacture, and disposal.

Mexico is lacking in nanotechnology research programs and laws enacted to assess the safety of nanomaterials, the health risks involved in using them, and their environmental impact.

This situation resulted in a proposal to create the National Network for Nanotoxicity Evaluation (SINANOTOX), an organization made up of experts from eleven laboratories of six different institutions across Mexico. The team will communicate via a digital platform, where all of the information produced by member researchers will be available for them to use.

Our goal at SINANOTOX is to become a national leader in promoting the safe use and regulation of nanomaterials. Through this effort, we will be able to evaluate and validate the safety of nanomaterials based on their effects on human, animal, and plant health. It is through this project that the experts will be able to contribute scientific evidence on the behavior and interactions of nanomaterials in different biological environments for the purpose of predicting the risks that could arise from the release of these particles into natural landscapes, such as seas, forests, and rivers, or even in the human body under the form of nanomaterial-containing treatments administered at hospitals.

The institutions involved in the creation of this national network are mentioned next: Tecnológico de Monterrey (Monterrey Campus) through the Cardiovascular Medicine and Metabolomics Strategic Research Group, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto Politécnico Nacional, Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí, Centro de Investigación y Asistencia en Tecnología y Diseño del Estado de Jalisco A.C, and Universidad Autónoma de Guanajuato.

Through work with companies, different industry sectors, government bodies, and research centers, this initiative will benefit the whole Mexican society, building a reputation as the first national network for the evaluation of nanomaterial safety. The contributions made by each member laboratory will be available for use in drafting recommendations for the handling and disposal of nanomaterials. The resulting documents could provide the basis for the enactment of laws regulating the use and massive production of nanomaterials, with human health, wellbeing, and environmental protection as guiding principles.

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About the Author:
Judith Bernal Ramírez holds a master’s degree in biotechnology from Tecnológico de Monterrey. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. degree in biotechnology at the Tecnológico de Monterrey School of Engineering and Science, Monterrey Campus. Contact: judithbernal.rmz@tec.mx

Advisor:
Gerardo de Jesús García Rivas holds a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He is a research professor and leader of both the  Cardiovascular Medicine and Metabolomics Research Group and the Center for Biomedical Research at Zambrano-Hellion Hospital. He is also a member of the National System of Researchers (Level II). Contact: gdejesus@tec.mx

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