BACKGROUND: Titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles (NPs) are widely used due to their specific properties, like UV filters in sunscreen. In that particular case TiO2 NPs are surface modified to avoid photocatalytic effects. These surface-treated nanoparticles (STNPs) spread in the environment and might release NPs as degradation residues. Indeed, degradation by the environment (exposure to UV, water and air contact …) will occur and could profoundly alter the physicochemical properties of STNPs such as chemistry, size, shape, surface structure and dispersion that are important parameters for toxicity. Although the toxicity of surface unmodified TiO2 NPs has been documented, nothing was done about degraded TiO2 STNPs which are the most likely to be encountered in environment. The superoxide production by aged STNPs suspensions was tested and compared to surface unmodified TiO2 NPs. We investigated the possible toxicity of commercialized STNPs, degraded by environmental conditions, on human intestinal epithelial cells. STNPs sizes and shape were characterized and viability tests were performed on Caco-2 cells exposed to STNPs. The exposed cells were imaged with SEM and STNPs internalization was researched by TEM. Gene expression microarray analyses were performed to look for potential changes in cellular functions.
RESULTS: The production of reactive oxygen species was detected with surface unmodified TiO2 NPs but not with STNPs or their residues. Through three different toxicity assays, the STNPs tested, which have a strong tendency to aggregate in complex media, showed no toxic effect in Caco-2 cells after exposures to STNPs up to 100 μg/mL over 4 h, 24 h and 72 h. The cell morphology remained intact, attested by SEM, and internalization of STNPs was not seen by TEM. Moreover gene expression analysis using pangenomic oligomicroarrays (4x 44000 genes) did not show any change versus unexposed cells after exposure to 10 μg/ mL, which is much higher than potential environmental concentrations.
CONCLUSIONS: TiO2 STNPs, degraded or not, are not harmful to Caco-2 cells and are unlikely to penetrate the body via oral route. It is likely that the strong persistence of the aluminium hydroxide layer surrounding these nanoparticles protects the cells from a direct contact with the potentially phototoxic TiO2 core.