Toxic exposures in the air can trigger severe health problems — worse, certain pollutants are so small that they can enter and harm any part of the body.
These microscopic “nanoparticles,” emitted from a wide range of products, from candles to cars, can cause numerous illnesses, according to published research.
Nanoparticles even have resulted in death.
According to Tim Smedley, author of “Clearing The Air,” in BBC Future, “The biggest killer of all never makes the headlines, isn’t regulated, and is barely talked about beyond niche scientific circles: it’s nanoparticles…nanoparticles can reach, and wreak havoc in, any organ in the body.”
What are Nanoparticles?
Certain products—such as candles that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—or machines—such as cars that produce PM2.5 (pollution particles measuring 2.5 micrometers or less)—release those toxins into the air.
VOCs and nanoparticles can cause numerous health problems in vulnerable people, such as those with chemical intolerances (TILT).
Nanoparticles, which are the smallest forms of these toxins, can have worse effects than other types of exposure due to their size, according to Prashant Kumar, the founding director of the Global Centre for Clean Air Research at the University of Surrey.
“When the exhaust fumes come out of vehicles, they come out as gases and cool into smaller [nano] particles. Then they start to accumulate to make bigger particles,” Kumar told BBC Future.
However, Kumar notes that not all particles will accumulate, which leaves behind the nanoparticles that cause the most significant harms.
“The smaller particles you have, you have a greater surface area,” he said. “A greater surface area means more [potential] toxicity, as they are in touch with a greater surface area inside your body.”
How do Nanoparticles Impact Health?
The main concern researchers have is the amount of nanoparticles people across the globe—especially those in large urban areas—breathe in every day.
One study, “Dispersion of Air Pollution and its Penetration into the Local Environment” (DAPPLE), illustrated the significant harms these exposures could cause.
“I expected a certain level of variation [in particle number],” Surbjit Kaur, a former research scientist at Imperial College London and DAPPLE researcher, told BBC Future. “But the level of fluctuation really surprised me… The volume of cars that went past had very little impact on people’s exposure to PM2.5. But it had a massive impact on [nanoparticles].”
Most significantly, these exposures can lead to the development of numerous illnesses.
This includes TILT.
As chemically-sensitive individuals face exposure to nanoparticles and other toxins—a loss of tolerance to these substances develops. This is what patients call being “TILT-ed.”
One major low- or high-level exposure event can cause the initiation of TILT. Then, following low- or high-level exposures can result in recurring, worsening side effects.
Commonly reported TILT symptoms include:
- Difficulties with attention, memory, and mood
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Allergy-like symptoms
- Migraines and headaches
- Fatigue and muscle pain
“TILT-related symptoms may involve any and every organ system,” researchers from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman TILT Program at UT Health San Antonio write. “Neurological symptoms such as memory problems, brain fog, and mood changes are common and often disabling.”
Dr. Claudia Miller, an environmental health professor and leader of the Hoffman TILT program, said TILT can happen to anyone.
“Although some people and families are more susceptible, overall the numbers appear to have grown in industrialized nations,” Miller said.
Those interested in learning more about TILT can take the Quick Environmental Exposure and Sensitivity Inventory (QEESI) assessment.
Can Nanoparticles Affect Some Groups More Than Others?
These risks especially impact child development, according to a 2019 study published in Environmental Research.
“Proximity to major roadways as well as pre- and postnatal exposures to common air pollutants may increase the risk of developmental delays,” the study’s authors write. “Air pollution and roadway emissions are potentially modifiable risks for developmental delay, and our findings suggest that these associations are present even at levels of exposure below current regulatory standards.”
Still, the risks seem high to some, including Dr. Jen Raftis, a researcher at the University of Edenborough, who has studied nanoparticles.
“I stopped burning candles in my house,” Raftis told BBC Future. “I don’t go for runs along roads, I always run in a park. I don’t drive and don’t think I consciously could do unless it was an electric car.”
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a collaboration between Salud America! and the Hoffman Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance (TILT) program at UT Health- San Antonio. To find out if you are TILTed due to exposure to everyday foods, chemicals, or drugs, take a self-assessment or learn more about TILT.
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