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To Know Nano is to Say Whoa to Nano

Posted on 12 February 2013 by Jerry

If you haven’t learned about Nanotechnology, its time you did.  Chemical, food and packaging companies are once again adding risky, untested, and unlabeled ingredients or coverings to the products we consume in the U.S. and most of the world.  Now, in addition to genetic modifications to over 80% of what we buy in supermarkets, we must also worry about nanoparticles.

Nanotechnology is the manipulation of atomic and molecular particles which are from 1 to 100 nanometers in size.  For perspective, the diameter of a human hair is 40,000 to 60,000 nanometers.  This is so small that normal biological barriers do not stop these particles from spreading throughout the body.  Studies show that when inhaled, ingested, or just rubbed on the skin, nanoparticles move through these normal blood barriers and use the circulatory system to accumulate in all the organs of the body, including the brain.

While most often composed of various metals such as silver, gold, titanium dioxide, and carbon, particles of this size can be created of almost anything.  One major problem is that these materials often act in surprising and distressing ways at this size.   They do not conform to the norms established at their usual scale in our environment.  They are ofter unpredictable.  As witnessed in so many other technical breakthroughs, there is a virtual land rush of companies seeking competitive advantage by including nanoparticles in almost everything they make.  Today nanoparticles are added, without our knowledge, to such products as food, clothing, medicines, shampoos, suntan lotions, cosmetics, vitamins, and toothpaste. 

Their use is not restricted to smaller companies. The American Chemical Society journal recently identified that for example, Nano-titanium dioxide (a thickener and whitener) is in 187 of the products they tested.  These include M&Ms and Mentos, Dentyn and Trident chewing gums, Nestle coffee creamers, various flavors of Pop-Tarts, Kool-Aid, Jell-O pudding, and Betty Crocker cake frostings.  As already indicated, this is a very small sample of products using nanoparticles. They will soon be used in a plethora of packaging materials.  For instance they will be used as a preservative coating on bananas.

This has prompted scientific studies highlighting the risk of repeated human exposure.  As of this writing, studies of their effects show a connection between these particles and damage to our livers, cancer in our lungs and to brain edema, or swelling of the brain, in laboratory animals.  They also cite research that indicates damage to the DNA in research animals and the premature corrosion of metals.  Scientists have found the toxicity of these particles increases as their size gets smaller.  Of concern is the even greater absorption of these particles by children. These findings prompted the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue its Current Intelligence Bulletin 63 – Occupational Exposure to Titanium Dioxide. 

It has also prompted scientists to comment.  Jürg Tschopp, the lead researcher and professor of biochemistry at Lausanne University said he was concerned nanoparticles could become the “asbestos of the future”.  In addition he is quoted as saying “With titanium dioxide you accumulate, like asbestos, particles in the lung.  You get chronic inflammation and this can last ten or 15 years and the next step is cancer.”  Richard Di Giulio, an environmental toxicologist participating in the study hosted by the Duke Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CIENT), stated “My suspicion, based on the limited amount of work that’s been done, is that nanoparticles are way less toxic than DDT, but what’s scary about nanoparticles is that we’re producing products with new nonmaterial far ahead of our ability to assess them.”

Once again at least the European Union is serving as a bastion of consumer protection by requiring at least the labeling of foods containing nanoparticles.  Other domestic and international efforts to force labeling disclosing nanoparticles have been vigorously opposed by the industries who think they can gain from the use of these materials.  They often will not even acknowledge their use, citing protection of their proprietary information.

Heather Millar, in her Orion Magazine article, “Pandora’s Boxes: Inside nanotechnology’s little universe of big unknowns” summed up our situation exactly.  She wrote “As a society, we’ve been here before – releasing ‘miracle technology’ before its potential health and environmental ramifications are understood, let alone investigated.  Remember how DDT was going to stamp out malaria and typhus and revolutionalize agriculture?  How asbestos was going to make buildings fireproof?  How bisphenol A (BPA) would make plastics clear and nearly shatterproof?  How methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) would make gasoline burn cleanly?  How polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were going to make electrical networks safer?  How genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were going to end hunger?”  Once again the material sciences have prompted businesses to get way ahead of our safety.

I must thank a doctor friend who insisted that Nanotechnology was something I needed to focus on.  While at this point it does not rise to the urgency of “threatening all life on this planet”, it could someday and is deserving of our attention.

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