Nanoparticles – tiny bioengineered substances up to 100 nanometers or less in size – that are commonly added to foods and drugs ingested daily may be more harmful to health than previously believed, a new Cornell University study suggests.
Research led by Cornell’s Michael Shuler found polystyrene nanoparticles – approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in everything from food additives to vitamins – affected how well chickens absorbed iron, an essential nutrient, into their cells.
The research, which was partly funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found the nanoparticles blocked iron absorption in chickens. The team said it chose the animals for the study because they absorb iron into their bodies similarly to humans.
The findings, published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, underscore how such particles, which have been widely studied and considered safe, cause barely detectable changes that could lead to unexpected health effects, Shuler said.
"Nanoparticles are entering our environment in many different ways," Shuler said. "We have some assurance that at a gross level they are not harmful, but there may be more subtle effects that we need to worry about."