The manufacture, use and disposal of nanomaterials will result in increased human exposures to engineered nanoparticles (ENPs), potentially via the lung. ENPs differ physically and chemically from natural- or combustion-derived nanoparticles (NP) in important respects. While there are parallels with ultrafine aerosol particles in the atmosphere and colloids in water, there remain some unique issues and impacts of engineered materials on lung health that require consideration and urgent study.
The study of toxicity of nanomaterials in biological systems—nanotoxicology—emerged from the observed effects of inhaled particulate matter (PM) and NP. Some engineered nanomaterials deserve special toxicological examination because of their unique properties in biological systems; novel toxicological approaches may be required for their assessment. Translocation in biological systems—a key feature of ENPs—is dependent on ENP size and surface interactions with macromolecules at the portal of entry, upstream of cellular interaction. Of particular significance is the agglomeration processes associated with macromolecule adsorption at ENP surfaces, which determine clearance rates and cellular response. ENP toxicity is therefore dominated by three linked physico-chemical factors: size-shape, surface and ‘corona’ (formed by adhering macromolecules from the suscipient host). Measuring and predicting ENP translocation and effects following lung entry have proven to be particularly challenging, but understanding ENP behaviour in vivo is fundamental for safe design for effective and targeted drug delivery. Human exposures via medical and dental applications appear important in terms of dose and toxicity, and may need to be assessed for risk on a case-by-case basis.