Nano-Stealth. Nano-textiles are to organic clothing as GMO crops are to organic foods. Both nano-textiles and GMO crops are the results of scientific tinkering at subtle layers of matter without a complete understanding of the consequences, and according to their ardent proponents both have an almost unbounded potential for improving life on Earth, and according to their equally passionate opponents both technologies have been recklessly released upon consumers without adequate testing and understanding of potential consequences.
To understand nano-textiles, we must first explore nanotechnology which enables the manipulation of fibers at the level of atoms and molecules to alter their properties and qualities. The prefix nano is derived from the Greek word for dwarf. According to WikiAnswers, “nano” essentially means “really small. Divided into a billion parts. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. A nanosecond is one billionth of a second. A nanocraig would be one billionth of some guy named Craig.”
Nanotechnology operates on nanomaterials which are particles such as molecules having a size of 100 nanometers (nm) or less. A meter is approximately 39 inches so a nanometer is one billionth (1/1,000,000,000) of a meter or really, really small. The width of the typical human hair is about 80,000 nm so nanotechnology – and the nanomaterials that they create – operate in a world that is about 1,000 times smaller than the width of a hair. Nanotechnology begins at the level of creation where elements of chemistry, physics, biology and engineering converge.
Nano-materials are engineered at the atomic and molecular level and when they are integrated into fabrics can fundamentally alter the physical properties of a textile. According to a recent article on nano-textiles, Solefresh socks from JR Nanotech are “peppered with silver nanoparticals natural antibacterial and antifungal properties mean that the socks combat infections, sores, and, yes stinky feet.” Nanotechnology can be used to give fabrics a wide range of properties such as being:
- Resistant to spills and stains;
- Create superior temperature moderation when the wearer moves between hot and cold external temperatures;
- Really permanent press and wrinkle resistance;
- Able to oxide smog;
- Antibacterial and antifungal;
- Color fast without dyes because the color is a function of the nanoparticle;
In our last posting, we looked at how formaldehyde derivative are used to finish permanent press fabrics. The “permanent” in permanent press is relative because the formaldehyde used to cross-link the cellulose hydrogen bonds in cotton clothes will wash out after repeated washings. Lands End advertises their super duper “No Iron Original Oxford” to withstand 50 no-wrinkle washings but even they will eventually lose their permanent press because their wrinkle-free property is gained on the chemical level. Nanotechnology companies such as Nano-Tex claim that their fabrics are really, truly permanent-press because their wrinkle-free quality is embedded in the molecular level and not at the chemical level.
Chemists like to build new compounds by putting lots of molecules and substances together and creating a new reaction to give new compounds. Physicists like to break atoms apart by colliding them together to expose subatomic matter. Nanotechnologists like to build new and very, very small materials one atom or molecule at a time because at this very tiny level of creation, atoms and molecules actually exhibit different properties than they do when many of them are glombed together in a big chunk of matter.
In his fascinating article “Atomic Masonry” which appeared in the Autumn 2007 issue of Oregon, Jon Palfreman reports on a conversation with Universary of Oregon (Go Ducks!) nanotechnology chemist Jim Hutchison who describes how ordinary gold is chemically inert. Ordinary gold is chemically inert, it never rusts and it always maintains its gold-colored luster. But a gold nanoparticle of only a few dozen atoms in size is “different; it’s not only very chemically reactive, it also changes color, from yellow to ruby red,” according to nano-chemist Hutchison.
Creation is very different for particles fabricated at the nano-scale because the surface area is proportionally much greater than the overall size for a nano-particle than for a conventional, ordinary particle that is composed of thousands or millions of atoms rather than just a few dozen. This proportionally greater surface area of a nano-particle imbibes the nano-particle with properties and characteristics which larger particles of the same material often do not have such as the ruby color of gold nano-particles or the ability of nano-particles of grapheme to attract stem cells for repairing bone fractures.
The Concern With NanoTechnology. But not all the properties, characteristics and side-effects of a nano-particle are known, and the unpredictable and unknown side-effects of nano-particles concerns some scientists, environmentalists, and health advocates. For example, nano-particles used in cosmetics or clothing may create toxins that are easily absorbed into the skin and circulatory system and, because of their very small size, be carried throughout the entire body and into all the organs, including the brain, with unknown consequences. Because of their extremely small size, the possibility of nano-particles escaping and leaking into the environment during manufacturing processes also increases with unknown results.
A report by the British Government in 2005 cautioned companies and consumers on the unknown effects of nano-particles. The report concluded “The Government accepts that chemicals in the form of nanoparticles or nanotubes can exhibit different properties to the bulk form of the chemical. Safety testing on the basis of a larger form of a chemical cannot be used to infer the safety of the nanoparticulate form of the same chemical.”
For example, zinc oxide in its common non-nanoparticulate form has been widely used in creams and ointments to treat minor skin burns and also in sunblocks. Manufacturers have been releasing a bevy of sunblocks containing zinc oxide in its nanoparticulate form because the nanoparticles of zinc oxide are more easily absorbed into the skin without the chalky film of conventional sunblocks.
Review by the Australian Government’s Department of Health & Ageing of the scientific research concerning nanoparticles of zinc oxide used in sunblocks reported that “There is evidence from isolated cell experiments that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can induce free radical formation in the presence of light and that this may damage these cells (photo-mutagenicity with zinc oxide).” Of course, this is dependent upon how deeply the zinc oxide penetrates the skin. Their research revealed that zinc oxide nanoparticles, because of their tiny size, penetrate the deeper dermis layers of the skin more easily than common zinc oxide especially around hair follicles. The effects and consequences of common chemicals in nanoparticulate form are still unknown and require more research before they can be labeled safe.
Research is beginning to be published that indicate that nanoparticles can cause cellular damage in ways not previously expected. Nature Nanotechnology, an excellent scientific journal published by the Nature Publishing Group and dedicated to basic nanotechnology research, has recently published two research studies, “Nanotoxicology: Damaging DNA from a distance” and “Nanoparticles can cause DNA damage across a cellular barrier” reporting on previously unexpected … and unwelcome … side effects of nanoparticles used in medical treatments.
Because of all the unknowns and the unpredictability of this new branch of science, many scientists, environmental activists and health advocates are concerned about the rapid mushrooming of nano-technology products.
NanoProducts: Here, There & Everywhere. Worldwide, consumers can find more than 800 products manufactured by more than 440 companies in more than 20 countries containing nano-particles which are silently infiltrating everything from cosmetics, sunscreen, food additives, tennis balls which bounce higher, computer products such as flash memory and processor chips, cleaning products such as degreasers and window cleaners, bedding and sheet sets, high performance carbon bike frames, high performance golf club shafts, wound and cut salve with powerful antimicrobial and bactericidal protection, adhesive for McDonald’s burger containers, germicidal toothpastes, air sanitizers and purifiers, deep penetrating sunscreens which last all day, non-sticking aluminum foil, and a broad range of food and beverages from a canola oil to a slim shake chocolate with nano-particles “designed to carry nutrition into your cells.”
One of the new nano-technology products that I found disturbing is the Ain Supplio Pencil from Pentel. This pencil for children has nano-particles in the pencil lead which “release allegedly mind-expanding aromas, letting you smell your way to smartness while you scribble your meandering prose on a piece of paper. The fragrance is encapsulated using nanotechnology, where microscopic bubbles containing the fragrance are blended in with the lead. When you write, the fresh fragrance pops out of those tiny nanocapsules, filling the room with sweetness and enlightenment for all within noseshot.”
For balanced information on nanotechnology and to browse a near-complete database of commercial nano-products, visit the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies which was founded in April 2005 as a partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Estimating that nanotechnology will become a trillion dollar industry by 2015, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is dedicated to helping ensure that as nanotechnologies advance, possible risks are minimized, public and consumer engagement remains strong, and the potential benefits of these new technologies are realized.
What has many scientists, environmentalists and community and personal health professionals concerned is that, currently there are no regulations or controls concerning the research, manufacturing or use of nano-particles in food, clothing or consumer products. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) controls and regulates the introduction of new chemicals into consumer products but not the introduction of new nano-particles. Consumers are basically relying upon nanotechnology manufacturers to be self-regulating and to thoroughly understand and test their products containing nano-particles before releasing them to the public.
Let’s see if you recognize this tune. Tinkering at subtle layers of creation. Significant possibility for unforeseen consequences and side effects which could have disastrous consequences for environmental and personal health. Government regulations inadequate or lacking completely. Sounds familiar? This is all very similar to the way GMO foods and agricultural products have been slyly released into unsuspecting consumer markets.
The Soil Association is the only organization that has taken a stand concerning the health and welfare of the public and the environment with regard to nano-products. The Soil Association is the major non-governmental organization in England that “exists to research, develop and promote sustainable relationships between the soil, plants, animals, people and the biosphere, in order to produce healthy food and other products while protecting and enhancing the environment.” The Soil Association has developed an extensive set of standards for certifying products that ensure the integrity of organic, healthy products and has banned products containing nano-particles for two reasons:
- Not Organic. The basic physical structure of synthetic nano-particles has been modified at a very fundamental level. Because synthetic nano-particles do not exist in nature they can not be considered organic and are incompatible with this important organic principle.
- Unknown Side Effects. Nanotechnology also violates the precautionary organic principle of safety first because nano-materials can have unpredictable and unknown risks, and most nano-materials are unnecessary because safer alternatives exist.
The Soil Association is the first and only standards organization to tackle the nano-products situation. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) in the U.S. has not taken a public position on nano-technology and consumer products with nano-particles. We hope that the OTA acts soon and responsibly and stops their dithering. This is especially true for clothing made from nano-particles. Sufficient concerns are swirling around nano-textiles at nano-speed that the time to act is yesterday.
The tiny size of nano-particles makes it possible for nano-particles in cosmetics or textiles to bypass the body’s natural protective barriers such as the skin and the blood-brain barrier. The health consequences are unknown but just the thought of tiny little nano-particles of some metal like gold or silver or heaven-knows-what kind of molecules surreptitiously entering my blood system from clothing made with nano-particles makes me uneasy. Of course, nano-textiles are not required to list what nano-particles they might contain.
The Scoop Behind Nanotextiles. The science of the very, very small is quietly sliding into the textile industry. Nanotextiles are not itty bitty socks and shirts but fabrics from natural, synthetic and regenerated fibers that have been embedded with nanoparticles for specific properties. Science is cooking up nanotextiles to increase protective and easy care properties such as:
- UV Protection,
- Antibacterial and antifungal,
- Insect repellent,
- Stain resistant,
- Wrinkle resistant,
- Fire resistant,
- And even the ability to oxidize smog.
Let’s look more closely at some of the nanochemicals that are empowering ordinary fabrics with these new super powers. Embedded nanoparticles of zinc oxide (ZnO) is a favorite for increased UV protection in swim wear. Zinc Oxide nano-particles are water soluble and very toxic to aquatic organisms … which might not be the type of effect that you want your swim wear to have. See Z-MITE product information. Also, nanoparticles of zinc oxide have ben shown to be photoactive which causes them to produce free radicals that can cause DNA damage to skin cells when exposed to UV light.
Silver is one of a number of active chemicals supposed to have natural antimicrobial properties that have been reduced to nanoparticles for incorporation into textiles and clothing. SmartSilver, a nanomaterial developed and manufactured by NanoHorizons Inc, is embedded in clothing, medical devices and textiles to control bacteria. Based on information and test reports provided by NanoHorizons, the International Oeko-Tex Association has certified NanoHorizons’ SmartSilver as an active chemical additive that does not contain harmful levels of substances believed to be dangerous to human health. Questions remain as to whether the independent testing has been sufficient to guarantee the safety of nanoparticles of silver. Oeko-Tex certification in clothing just means that the garments do not contain levels of chemicals that Oeko-Tex deems harmful … not that the clothing is chemical-free
Again, SmartSilver from NanoHorizons Inc is one of a number of nanoparticles which are supposed to endow fabrics used in clothing with anti-odor properties. Undergarments, hats, gloves, socks, T-shirts, sweaters, shoe linings and other garments made of wool, polyester, nylon, polypropylene, cotton and rayon are impregnated with SmartSilver’s nanoparticles during the dyeing process to give them anti-odor properties.
Nano-Tex, a leading provider of “nanotechnology-based textile enhancements”, is partnering with JC Penney with a variety of home textiles and clothing.
350TC Wrinkle-Free Sheet Set
The Making of NanoTextiles. Nanotextiles can be made from almost all fibers – natural fibers like cotton, hemp, jute, ramie, silk, mohair or wools; regenerated fibers like bamboo rayon and Tencel / lyocell; and synthetic fibers like nylon, olefin, acrylic, polyester and spandex. Nanotextiles are created not by itsy bitsy teenie tiny looms and spinning wheels but by taking ordinary fibers and embedding them with nanoparticles.
The most common method of embedding nanoparticles in fibers and fabrics is by using a variety of strong and weak acids and bases and other chemicals to chemically or electrostatically bond the nanoparticles to molecules in the fibers of the fabric. The acids, bases, chemicals and processes used to bond nanoparticles to the fibers depend upon which nanoparticles are being bonded to which fibers. Some of the chemicals being used to bond nanoparticles into natural and synthetic fibers are ammonium, epoxy, and crosslinkable polysiloxane.
Which nanoparticles are being used depend upon which properties the lab wishes to add to the fabrics. Textile scientists can dip into a wide range of organic and inorganic nanoparticles that will give textile the properties that they wish to create.
The image is of Nicole Grospe and Andrea Clark, both of the Department of Fiber Science & Apparel Design in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell, modeling nano-fashions by Olivia Ong. The nano-textiles were fabricated by Cornell University science fiber assistant professor Juan Hinestroza using negatively charged silver and palladium nano-particles embedded into positively charged cotton. These nano-fashions will guard the wearer against bacteria, repel stains, fight off allergies, and oxidize smog. Oh, yes. These nano-textiles cost about $10,000 per yard to make.
The Concern With NanoTextiles. The commercialization of nanotechnology into the fabrics surrounding us is blasting ahead without any oversight or regulation or even comprehensive understanding of side effects and consequences. Consumers, scientists and doctors have raised a mega-basketful of concerns about nanotextiles covering the entire lifecycle of any garment or fabric which contains nanoparticles.
The potential for health and environmental hazards begin with the manufacturing of nanoparticles, to the manufacturing of textiles and clothing embedded with nanoparticles, to the wearing and care of nanotextiles, to the final discarding and trashing of nanotextiles in landfills. During manufacturing, the potential dangers are to workers accidentally inhaling nanoparticles, the inadvertent release of nanoparticles into the environment in waste waters and other waste products and airborne fumes, and the inevitable equipment and process failures and accidents which will allow zillions of nanoparticles to flood into the environment via air, waterways or seep into the earth.
During the wearing and cleaning of nanotextiles, some nanofibers will break off and be inhaled or washed down the drains of washing machines. Some will work their way into the wearer’s skin and perhaps through a cut or sore into the subcutaneous part of the skin where it can infiltrate even further into the body and possibly into the blood stream.
When laundering textiles embedded with nanoparticles, some of those nanoparticles will break off and wash down drains. Sewage treatment plants are not prepared for tiny nanoparticles and they will be discharged into rivers and lakes where fish and other aquatic life will be exposed. Research published in the Scientific American has already found that silver nanoparticles, commonly used as an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agent in socks and workout clothing, can kill and mutate fish embryos.
And how do you throw away a garment or bedding that is saturated with nanoparticles? Just toss them into the garbage to be trucked to landfills where they will enter the eco-system?
Here’s what I believe. OK, technology has been a cornerstone of my career for more than 30 years and it has contributed loads to my personal and family life. Nanotechnology has great potential for good but, as a society, we must also be concerned about the health of all life, including the environment. We can not rush willy nilly into nanotechnology and rush untested and unlabelled nanoproducts into every corner of consumerism – children’s toys, bedding, clothing, skin care products, who-knows-whatnot. The "healthy" that is offered by nano-textiles is a long way from the healthy provided by organic clothing. This is what I believe. What do you believe?