Oh no! Nano! – coming to a product near you!

Nano-particlesI recently attended a conference that touched on nanoparticles. I was intrigued because I had once given a brief to the USDA on their properties and possible hazards in our food supply. Australia, Canada and the UK all restrict their occurrence in organic production, so there were grounds for concern. On the other hand, I also recognized there were groundbreaking scientific and technological advances in industry and medicine through the use of nanotechnology.

Here’s some background: Nanoparticles are substances, such as silver or titanium dioxide that have been broken down into pieces at the molecular level, one billionth of a meter to be specific. The process consists of taking a substance and splicing it into the smallest imaginable particle that can exist and still be classified as the same material.  But the questions remains, is it really the same material with the same properties in macro size, or is it something that behaves differently?

The fact is scientific evidence shows when a material is scaled down to this molecular level its reactivity and properties do change drastically. This very change is what makes it so valuable to science. It begs the question; does this change also affect its toxicity?

The Answer is YES.

Bountiful Benefits

The benefits of nano technology include improved formulation of drugs, more accurate diagnostics and advancements in organ replacement, among other breakthroughs in the medical, energy and agricultural industries.It all sounds like science fiction but the future is here now. Nanotechnology is a burgeoning market. According to Global Industry Analysts, it will exceed $30 Billion annually by 2015. The defense, pharmaceutical and healthcare industries are pouring money into research and development, as is our government. The race to create new super particles is on at breakneck speed. Watch this NOVA episode on PBS to learn more.

Problematic Properties

When a material is scaled down to one billionth of a meter, its inherent properties change. The particle has more surface area per weight, meaning it is more reactive.  The adverse effects cannot be derived from the known toxicity of the macro-size material. This poses significant issues for addressing the impacts of nanoparticles in various areas.

Health: Because of their size, nanoparticles are more likely to pass through biological membranes, circulate through the body, placenta, and lungs, entering cells and potentially causing great harm.

Environment: Nano-pollution is derived from the manufacturing as well as the usage of the particles. The waste may be very dangerous because of its size. It can float in the air and water and may easily penetrate animal and plant cells, causing unknown effects. Most human-made nanoparticles do not appear in nature, so living organisms may not have the appropriate means to deal with nano-waste.

Societal: New nano-products are being developed to replace rubber, textiles, flavors and drugs. Producers in developing countries could be disadvantaged by the replacement of natural products by developments in nanotechnology. These natural products are important exports for developing countries, and many farmers’ livelihoods depend on them. If you can buy your vanilla from one person with a vat in San Francisco, why would you bother to source from 150 small growers in developing countries?  Entire traditional economies could be wiped out as a result.

Lack of Oversight and Regulations

There are currently no regulations for nanotechnologies in the US. The Environmental Protection Agency found that approximately 90% of nano-scale materials that are likely commercially available for the industry were not reported under the organization’s voluntary reporting program. Similarly, the Food and Drug Administration has recognized that ingredients that are generally recognized as safe at the macro level may not be safe at the nano-scale.

Where are nano-particles?

There are increasing uses of nanoparticles in food and food related products to keep food fresher, whiter and more cosmetically appealing. Since the EPA and FDA don’t recognize or regulate these particles, food processors use them at will without labels and often unknowingly. In February, As You Sow, an environmental health group, tested and found evidence that nanoparticles of titanium dioxide are in Dunkin Donuts frosting! They surveyed 2,500 food companies on their use of nano-materials in their food products and many did not know if they used them or not. You can download the brief, Slipping through the Cracks, to learn more. Even companies such as McDonalds and Kraft have posted statements that they recognize the current uncertainty of nanotechnology and do not support the use by their suppliers.

Researchers have discovered that nano-particle sized zinc oxide, commonly found in cosmetics and sunscreens, may cause cancer by entering human cells and damaging DNA. Friends of The Earth Australia commissioned tests that found nanoparticles in 10 of the leading cosmetic brands. You can visit Environmental Working Group’s website to learn more about nanoparticle use in sunscreen products. The Huffington Post recently posted an article asking “Is your Sunscreen Safe?” Evidence abounds that titanium dioxide used in 70% of pigments worldwide is a carcinogen.

Nano-silver is used to kill bacteria in washing machines, vacuums, socks and underwear.  Recent studies have found that these new technologies release silver nanoparticles into the wastewater systems and the environment. There they become dangerous to microbes essential for ecologic systems. A recent study indicated that nano-silver may even seep into your sweat.

With the murky waters of unknown use and the unregulated nature of these particles, what can we do?

Democracy in Action has a petition to demand that the FDA assess the safety of nanoparticles in cosmetics. Urge the EPA to regulate and assess nanoparticles in the US. Pass this information on to those who are unaware of the presence of nanoparticles in products and food. We are being treated like guinea pigs as the technology is developing quickly without a good understanding of the repercussions. Let’s say no to nano until the technology is properly tested, labeled and regulated.

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