Nanoparticles: The new One True Cause of All Disease?

They’re here, they’re there, they’re everywhere!

Sorry. I couldn’t resist. I also couldn’t resist revisiting the topic of nanoparticles one last time. You remember nanoparticles? They’re the contaminant that poisons everything, at least if you believe two Italians, Antonietta Gatti and Stefano Montanari, who published a paper that purported to show that vaccines were hopelessly contaminated with heavy metal nanoparticles. (Hey, that would make a great name for a band.) Unfortunately for them, the study was a hopeless botch that lacked anything resembling proper controls, experimental design, replication, or statistical analysis. Montanari was not particularly happy at the criticism, which lead me to note that there was even more wrong with the paper than I had noticed before.

It also led me to discover the wild and wonderful world of nanoparticles. Actually, nanoparticles do have a lot of potential uses in medicine and are a fascinating topic in biology and medicine. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about quacks and how they view nanoparticles. Basically, quacks have latched on to nanoparticles the way they’ve latched on to quantum physics and epigenetics. They twist the science and, in this case, use it to “explain” all sorts of disease. They found “nanoparticles” not just in vaccines, but have been finding them in just about everything, as I discussed. So yesterday, I wondered: Just how far has nanoparticle quackery gone? Long time readers will realize that homeopaths have—hilariously—invoked nanoparticles as the mechanism by which homeopathy “works.” It’s become so common a trope among homeopaths that I just laugh at it now.

Here, we’re talking about a different form of nanoparticle quackery. Curious, I searched several prominent quack websites and found that nanoparticles are a popular topic. I also did Before I go into that, first, let’s define what nanoparticles are. Oddly enough, after two posts discussing cranks who “find” nanoparticles in everything, I never actually defined them. Basically, nanoparticles are particles that measure between 1 and 100 nanometers in size. They’re subclassified by diameter and have many applications in medicine, physics, optics, and electronics. Indeed, I’m on the thesis committee of a graduate student whose PhD project involves studying a nanoparticle as a drug delivery device in cancer chemotherapeutics.

Circling back to Gatti and Montanari’s paper, I can’t help but point to Sayer Ji’s take on it. You remember Sayer Ji, don’t you? I’ve discussed him on numerous occasions. He’s the proprietor of GreenMedInfo, a repository of quackery based on the misinterpretation of scientific papers. Not surprisingly, he was quite impressed with Gatti and Montanari’s execrable paper, to the point where he wrote an article called Metal Nanoparticle Contaminated Vaccines: Why Size Matters

A highly controversial new study on heavy metal contaminated vaccines is under fire, but its detractors fail to understand that, in nano-toxicology, size matters much more than commonly believed. Indeed, sometimes the smaller the size, the greater the toxicity.

Basically, Ji seems to think that nanoparticles invalidate Paracelsus’s saying that the dose makes the poison. In essence, he seems to be arguing for a homeopathy of nanoparticles in which the smaller (and less mass) they are, the more powerfully toxic they are:

The number of particles present in each vaccine sample tested ranged from 2 to 1,821. ORAC and his colleagues argue that these are biologically insignificant quantities. I quote: “What they really found is that the amount of inorganic contamination is so low as to be biologically irrelevant. In fact, what they found is that vaccines are incredibly pure products.” I believe this perspective ignores what we now know about the dangers of nanoparticles. Contrary to popular belief, it is actually because of the exceedingly small size of these particles that they possess especially potent and complex toxicities, as well as an increased proclivity towards biopersistence. Molecular weight, therefore (i.e. “dose”), does not make the poison. In other words, as the size of a metal or toxicant decreases (and therefore its mass), the harm produced may actually increase. Not to mention, that in the age of personalized medicine and increasingly complex syndromal illness presentations, it is impossible to generalize about the “irrelevance” of an exposure.

I’m tellin’ ya. It’s homeopathy all over again, where the smaller the nanoparticle, the stronger its toxic effect is.

Let’s dispose of the straw man here first. It’s not the molecular weight that makes the poison. Remember, I was arguing that the number of particles, not the mass of the particles, was inconsequential. Indeed, I was criticized for not taking into account the possible mass. In any case, nanoparticles in no way invalidate dose-response exposures. They might have different dose-response exposures, different distributions to different fluids and organs in the body, but the dose does still make the poison. Yes, nanoparticles can exhibit cytotoxicity and genotoxicity. Yes, size does influence toxicity. However, size is just one factor. There are many others, including chemical composition, shape, surface structure, surface charge, aggregation and solubility, and the presence or absence of functional groups of other chemicals.

Not surprisingly, The Food Babe is on the case, although surprisingly she hasn’t written nearly as much about nanoparticles as she has about other “chemicals”:

There’s a big controversy surrounding the results of a 2012 study that found titanium dioxide in Dannon yogurt. In May, Mother Jones reported that Dannon Oikos Greek Yogurt contained the nanoparticle titanium dioxide, but have since retracted this from their article following Dannon’s claims that, “We don’t use any ingredients in Dannon plain yogurt that contain titanium dioxide. In the event we use an added color in our products we label it as an added ingredient”. I also contacted Dannon, and they confirmed this information. However, microscopic particles of titanium dioxide (nanoparticles) can be used as an artificial color to make white foods whiter and brighter. According to Friends of the Earth, there’s been “a tenfold increase in unregulated, unlabeled “nanofood” products on the American market since 2008… made by major companies including Kraft, General Mills, Hershey, Nestle, Mars, Unilever, Smucker’s and Albertsons. But due to a lack of labeling and disclosure, a far greater number of food products with undisclosed nanomaterials are likely currently on the market”. This concerns me because nanoparticles have been shown to carry risks to human health and the environment, and nanoparticles of titanium dioxide are specifically linked to gastrointestinal inflammation.

She’s gloated over Dunkin Donuts removing titanium dioxide from its powdered donuts.

Meanwhile, a couple of years ago Mother Jones published a truly overblown article by Tom Philpott entitled Is Big Dairy Putting Microscopic Pieces of Metal in Your Food? Amusingly, the article has an update that “The original version of this post claimed several dairy and dairy alternative products* contained nano-particles, based on the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN)’s inventory of nanotech products. PEN has since removed all of those products from its database, claiming that the 2012 journal article on which their conclusion was based had not conclusively shown that the products contain significant amounts of nano-particles.” Be that as it may, the article is laced with a considerable amount of misinformation and fear mongering about titanium dioxide. The US FDA allows food products to contain up to 1% titanium dioxide without the need to include it on the ingredient label, as long as the substance added conforms to high levels of purity. In any case, here’s an explanation as to how Mother Jones got it wrong.

None of that stops people like Sayer Ji from publishing articles like Why Is The Food Industry Poisoning Us With Trillions of Nanoparticles? Basically, Ji riffs off of an in vitro cell culture study (but I repeat myself) that purported to find that titanium dioxide nanoparticles are toxic to the cells that line the human stomach. Of course, it turns out that most of the titanium dioxide particles used in food are not true nanoparticles, but consist of larger particles.

Not surprisingly, über-quack Joe Mercola:

Millions of tons of titanium dioxide are produced globally each year. It adds whiteness and brightness to products and also helps them resist discoloration. Titanium dioxide also reflects ultraviolet (UV) light, which is why it’s often used as an ingredient in sunscreens.

Most titanium dioxide (close to 70 percent) is used as a pigment in paints, but it’s also added to cosmetics, toothpastes, pharmaceuticals, paper and food.

Titanium dioxide is generally considered to be a relatively inert, safe material, but an increasing number of products are now using titanium dioxide nanoparticles, and that may change everything.

Nanoparticles are ultramicroscopic in size, making them able to readily penetrate your skin and travel to underlying blood vessels and your bloodstream.

Evidence suggests that some nanoparticles may induce toxic effects in your brain and cause nerve damage, and some may also be carcinogenic.

Of course, the data he cites is based on in vitro and animal studies.

Basically, what has happened to nanoparticles is what happens to so many scientific questions relevant to health when quacks get their hands on them. Questions about whether nanoparticles have adverse health effects are sensationalized, and then nanoparticles morph into an all-purpose toxic bogeyman that causes all manner of chronic disease, found everywhere and more toxic the smaller they are. Then, of course, there come the diagnostic tests to detect them. In that, Gatti and Montenari clearly know their audience and are ahead of their time—in quackery. I’m only surprised nanoparticle fears aren’t a bigger part of American quackery and that the Food Babe hasn’t made them a central part of her fear mongering. Give it time, I guess. It wouldn’t surprise me if nanoparticles don’t soon become the new “toxins.” Alternatively, they’ll become the new Morgellon’s disease, with the added benefit that it requires expensive equipment, and not just a regular microscope, to detect nanoparticles. So much more profitable.