Microbiologist calls for Irish register of ‘nanomaterials’

Long-term health impact of tiny particles in sunblock and toothpaste is ‘not yet known’

Sunblock has many benefits, but its “nanomaterial” content may not necessarily be that harmless.

Society is increasingly using "nanomaterials" or tiny particles in other products, such as cosmetics and food packaging, before their long-term impact is fully understood, according to NUI Galway (NUIG) microbiologist Prof Martin Cormican.

Prof Cormican, who was speaking at an international environment and health conference at NUIG, has called on Ireland to establish a national register of engineered nanoparticle use – as several other European countries have done.

Silver, carbon, silica and titanium are among materials which are broken down into very minute particles to make certain products more effective, he explained.


A nanoparticle is so small a “conga line” of tens of thousands of them would make just one millimetre on a school ruler, he said.

“Nanomaterials occur naturally, but these engineered nanomaterials are being used increasingly in everyday life, and it is time we monitored the level of this use,” he said.


He said he was not suggesting such monitoring at an individual level, but at a macro level, while research continues on long-term effects.

Tyres, biomedical devices, toothpaste and anti-odour socks are among other items which have engineered nanoparticles.

Silver nanoparticles in socks are said to have anti-bacterial properties to reduce the odour impact.

“I am not suggesting that their use should be banned, but we have many examples in the 20th century of new things that seemed like a great idea at the time,” Prof Cormican said. “We later found out they came at a very high price,” he said.

He cited “DDT, leaded petrol and green house gases” as examples.

“We need to work out how to develop ways to keep track of engineered nanomaterials and to understand if they will build up in the environment,”he said.

“If this is so, we have to know if they can reach levels that will have unexpected harmful effects.”

He said research is being conducted which shows enough evidence for “potential harm”.

For example, he said, it is known nanoparticles in the lung can pass into the blood stream.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times