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JOENSUU, Finland — COVID-19 has been an ongoing global threat that can’t been seen. Researchers in Finland say the next invisible health threat may already be here and it’s lurking in everyday household items.

The new study finds products such as cosmetics, clothes, and even food may contain nanomaterials that can lead to lung disease, brain inflammation, and cancer. Researchers say the use of nanomaterials is difficult to regulate because of their small size. This is concerning because they are so tricky to measure and can enter the food chain easily. Making matters worse, nanomaterials can penetrate cells and accumulate in the organs — leading to disease.

The danger of nanotechnology mirrors the DuPont pollution scandal of 1998, where it was discovered that a material used to manufacture Teflon for non-stick pans and other plastic products had caused cancer and birth defects for decades.

Now, the new study sheds light on whether nanomaterials are harmful and what happens to them when they enter an organism. An international team of researchers developed a method to find and trace nanomaterials in blood and tissues.

Tracking invisible particles in our food

They traced nanomaterials across an aquatic food chain, from microorganisms to fish, which is a major source of food in many countries. Study authors are hoping this opens new possibilities for safety precautions against these threats.

“We found that nanomaterials bind strongly to microorganisms, which are a source of food for other organisms, and this is the way they can enter our food chain,” lead author Dr. Fazel Monikh from the University of Eastern Finland says in a university release.

“Once inside an organism, nanomaterials can change their shape and size and turn into a more dangerous material that can easily penetrate cells and spread to other organs. When looking at different organs of an organism, we found that nanomaterials tend to accumulate especially in the brain.”

The positive aspects of nanomaterials

Nanotechnology is appearing everywhere and continues to change daily life. New innovations even help to treat diseases so efficiently that some illnesses could soon be a thing of the past.

Products that are 100 times stronger than steel, batteries lasting 10 times longer than before, solar panels yielding twice as much energy than old ones, skin care products that keep users looking young, as well as self-cleaning cars, windows, and clothes are all created using nanomaterials.

Nanotechnology used to be the stuff of science-fiction and Hollywood movies, but researchers say they are now a reality with the potential to fuel the next industrial revolution. The global market for nanomaterials also continues to grow, with an estimated 11 million tons in the market today. The current direct employment in the nanomaterial sector is between 300,000 and 400,000 jobs in Europe alone.

Nanoparticles are everywhere and that may be a bad thing

Researchers contend that the growing reliance on nanomaterials is also placing them in consumer products which could make them problematic to human health.

“It could be that you are already using nanomaterials in your food, clothes, cosmetic products, etc., but you still don’t necessarily see any mention of them in the ingredient list. Why? Because they are challenging to regulate because they are so small, and that we simply can’t measure them using standard methods once they’re in your products. People have the right to know what they are using and buying for their families. This is a global problem which needs a global solution,” Dr. Monikh adds.

“Many questions about nanomaterials still need to be answered. Are they safe for us and the environment? Where will they end up after we’re done using them? How can we assess their possible risk?”

According to the team, the amount of nanomaterials in an organism cannot be measured only by using their mass — which is the standard method for measuring other chemicals for health regulations. The study findings emphasize the importance of assessing the risk of nanomaterials before they are introduced to consumer products in larger amounts.

A better understanding of nanomaterials and their risks can help policy makers to introduce stricter rules on their use and on the way they are mentioned in products’ lists of ingredients.

The findings appear in the journal Nature Communications.

SWNS writer Chris Dyer contributed to this report.

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