Looking to nature for materials to use in everyday products has its appeal and has spurred earnest research efforts toward this end. The approach seems more healthful than turning to synthetic materials — but nature is not always benign. Luckily, there are scientists acting as watchdogs over this enterprise to make sure at least some of what’s natural in our products is actually a good thing.
In a new study, one team led by Anna Shvedova, Ph.D., has looked at materials called cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs), which are the most abundant natural biopolymers on the planet. Her team’s report from the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering states that CNCs have a lot of traits that are useful.
CNCs can lend desirable strength, and electrical and magnetic properties to products. They’re also biodegradable and come from renewable sources such as wood, bacteria and algae. Because of their all-around appeal, CNCs have made it into an impressive array of products.
“The novel generations of cellulose products are already manufactured and used for a number of applications in spray paints, cosmetics, packaging, construction and building insulation,” says Shvedova, who’s with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and West Virginia University.
What could be safer or more sustainable?
As it turns out, perhaps a lot of things. Shvedova tested these CNCs for health effects in mice. Her team found that these otherwise promising materials caused pulmonary inflammation and lung damage that is more severe than that caused by crocidolite asbestos, one of six kinds of the mineral. This could pose a serious health risk to manufacturing employees who work with CNCs and might inhale them.
“The major point to emphasize is that this nanomaterial should be handled carefully,” Shvedova says.
There is a bit of good news in all this. Shvedova also found that the way the CNCs were produced made a big difference in how they affected the animals’ health.
“Taken together, our data suggests that particle morphology and nanosize dimensions of CNCs, regardless of the source and chemical composition, may be critical factors affecting the type of innate immune inflammatory response,” she says. “As the need for manufacturing novel frontier nanocellulose materials for various applications including consumer products rises over the years, a detailed assessment of specific health outcomes with respect to their physical, structural and chemical properties is highly warranted.”
Shvedova’s work raises the persistent, modern question: How do we balance consumption with safeguarding our health and environment?