Dye Your Hair With ‘Nontoxic’ Graphene Nanoparticles? Not So Fast!
By Andrew Maynard
Graphene is something of a celebrity in the world of nanoscale materials. Isolated in 2004 by Nobel Prize winners Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, these ultrathin sheets of carbon atoms are already finding novel uses in areas like electronics, high-efficiency heating systems, water purification technologies and even golf balls. According to recent research published in the journal Chem, hair dyes can now be added to this list.
But how safe and responsible is this new use of the carbon-based wonder-material?
Northwestern University's press release proudly announced, "Graphene finds new application as nontoxic, anti-static hair dye." The announcement spawned headlines like, "Enough with the toxic hair dyes. We could use graphene instead," and "'Miracle material' graphene used to create the ultimate hair dye."
From these headlines, you might be forgiven for getting the idea that the safety of graphene-based hair dyes is a done deal. Yet having studied the potential health and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials for more years than I care to remember, I find such overly optimistic pronouncements worrying, especially when they're not backed up by clear evidence.
As the dye wears off, where do the nanoparticles go? Jiaxing Huang, Northwestern University, CC BY-ND
Tiny Materials, Potentially Bigger Problems
Engineered nanomaterials like graphene and graphene oxide (the particular form used in the dye experiments) aren't necessarily harmful. But nanomaterials can behave in unusual ways that depend on particle size, shape, chemistry and application. Because of this, researchers have long been cautious about giving them a clean bill of health without first testing them extensively. And while a large body of research to date doesn't indicate graphene is particularly dangerous, neither does it suggest it's completely safe.
A quick search of scientific papers over the past few years shows that, since 2004, more than 2,000 studies have been published that mention graphene toxicity; nearly 500 were published in 2017 alone.
This growing body of research suggests that if graphene gets into your body or the environment in sufficient quantities, it could cause harm. A 2016 review, for instance, indicated that graphene oxide particles could result in lung damage at high doses (equivalent to around 0.7 grams of inhaled material). Another review published in 2017 suggested that these materials could affect the biology of some plants and algae, as well as invertebrates and vertebrates toward the lower end of the ecological pyramid. The authors of the 2017 study concluded that research "unequivocally confirms that graphene in any of its numerous forms and derivatives must be approached as a potentially hazardous material."
These studies need to be approached with care, as the precise risks of graphene exposure will depend on how the material is used, how exposure occurs and how much of it is encountered. Yet there's sufficient evidence to suggest that this substance should be used with caution—especially where there's a high chance of exposure or that it could be released into the environment.
Unfortunately, graphene-based hair dyes tick both of these boxes. Used in this way, the substance is potentially inhalable (especially with spray-on products) and ingestible through careless use. It's also almost guaranteed that excess graphene-containing dye will wash down the drain and into the environment.
Here, due diligence is needed to ensure that the material is acceptably safe. This is something that goes beyond the seeming authority of a press release headline. In fact, such misleading headlines could end up being counterproductive, as they undermine efforts to demonstrate trustworthiness with consumers and investors.
Undermining Other Efforts?
I was alerted to just how counterproductive such headlines can be by my colleague Tim Harper, founder of G2O Water Technologies—a company that uses graphene oxide-coated membranes to treat wastewater. Like many companies in this area, G2O has been working to use graphene responsibly by minimizing the amount of graphene that ends up released to the environment.
Yet as Tim pointed out to me, if people are led to believe "that bunging a few grams of graphene down the drain every time you dye your hair is OK, this invalidates all the work we are doing making sure the few nanograms of graphene on our membranes stay put." Many companies that use nanomaterials are trying to do the right thing, but it's hard to justify the time and expense of being responsible when someone else's more cavalier actions undercut your efforts.
Here, naïve claims of safety and gung-ho approaches to promoting graphene-containing products could very easily threaten the responsible development and use of this material. And if companies pull back from acting responsibly, there's a danger that consumers, investors and even regulators will lose trust in their ability to ensure the safety of products of all kinds.
If this happens, consumers will be the ultimate losers. Used responsibly, graphene could lead to more sustainable and environmentally benign products. Yet having watched the public backlash against technologies like genetic engineering over the past couple of decades, I'm acutely aware that failing to earn the trust of stakeholders and consumers can stymie technologies, regardless of how safe and beneficial they are.
Overpromising Results and Overlooking Risk
This is where researchers and their institutions need to move beyond an "economy of promises" that spurs on hyperbole and discourages caution, and think more critically about how their statements may ultimately undermine responsible and beneficial development of a technology. They may even want to consider using guidelines, such as the Principles for Responsible Innovation developed by the organization Society Inside, for instance, to guide what they do and say.
To their credit, the authors of the dye study did give a passing mention to research on graphene safety, mostly focusing on an assumed level of safety compared to current dye products. Yet even this perfunctory level of caution failed to make it into the press release, which touted a "new hair dye that is nontoxic, nondamaging and lasts through many washes without fading."
It may turn out that graphene-based hair dyes can be developed safely. To be fair, the reported application isn't even close to commercial R&D yet, never mind the salon shelf. And certainly, there's a case to be made for substituting some of the harsh chemicals currently used in some products with more benign ones. But this won't happen while researchers and their institutions gloss over legitimate concerns and cautions with blind optimism.
Rather, by taking more care in how nanomaterial research is framed and promoted, researchers and their academic institutions could do a lot to ensure future nano-enabled consumer products are safe, beneficial, and above all, responsible.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
<div id="7aab6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4bff71c40172c15736f73fe73ed18078"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1330967606585593857" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Today, I’m announcing the first members of my national security and foreign policy team. They will rally the world… https://t.co/bAisIQk5P6</div> — Joe Biden (@Joe Biden)<a href="https://twitter.com/JoeBiden/statuses/1330967606585593857">1606162380.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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