Q: I’ve just
heard that an organic certification agency has added nanotechnology
to its list of forbidden things. What is it and should I be
concerned about it?
A: Nanotechnology is a powerful platform for
manipulating matter at the level of atoms and molecules in order to
alter their properties. Nanomaterials are defined as particles
having one or more dimensions of 100nm or less. One nanometer (nm)
is one millionth of a millimeter and one billionth of a meter – or
approximately one 80,000th of the width of a human hair. A strand of
DNA is 2.5nm wide and a red blood cell 7,000 nm.
The fundamental properties of matter change at the
nanoscale. According to research conducted at the University of
Rochester’s Department of Environmental Medicine and published in
Environmental Health Perspectives in 2005, altered properties
can include color, solubility, material strength, electrical
conductivity, magnetic behavior, mobility (within the environment
and within the human body), chemical reactivity and biological
The manufacture of products using nanotechnology has
exploded in recent years, creating something akin to a gold rush
mentality. More than 720 products containing nanomaterials are now
on the market. They include sunscreens and cosmetics, food
additives, temperature-moderating clothing, food packaging,
agricultural fertilizers, computer chips and mobile phones, inks,
computer storage devices and displays, football stadium lights,
tennis racquets, burn dressings and dental binding agents.
Nanotechnology proponents envision it being used in the future to
create cheaper ways of producing electricity from the sun, earlier
and better diagnostics and treatment of diseases and water
purification in developing countries. Currently, there is an
estimated $9 billion a year worth of research being done.
There is no doubt that nanotechnology will have a massive impact
on all industries and sectors of the economy, society and ecology. Opinion is
divided as to whether these changes will be positive or negative. But there is
enough concern that The Soil Association in the U.K. – one of the world’s
pioneers of organic agriculture – announced in January that it has banned
human-made nano- materials from the organic cosmetics, foods and textiles that
it certifies. A 2007 survey by 15 governments estimates there are at least 70
nanotech food-related applications already on the market and most major food and
beverage corporations are investing in nanotech R&D.
In a statement, The Soil Association explained its motivation:
“Our concern with nanoparticles lies in the fact that the properties of
materials at this size can differ significantly from those at larger scales.
Nanoparticles are so small they can sometimes bypass the body’s natural
protective boundaries such as skin…Industry and government are belatedly
conducting safety tests that will take several years to reach firm conclusions.
Therefore we’ve applied the precautionary principle.”
And that’s the problem: Products containing nanomaterials have
been released commercially in the absence of regulatory oversight and in spite
of warnings from some of the oldest and most respected scientific bodies in the
world, such as the U.K.’s Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering,
which published a report in 2004 urging tighter controls on the industry,
suggesting that nanomaterials be treated like new chemicals.
In particular, the report highlighted the potential risk of
“free” nanoparticles that it said could escape into the atmosphere, be inhaled
and have an effect on health, in the same way that ultra fine particles that are
a byproduct of forest fires, volcanoes and processes like welding and
vehicle combustion can be harmful to health. Professor Mark Welland, head of the
University of Cambridge Nanoscale Science Laboratory, says that we know inhaled
nanoparticles found in the bloodstream have dispersed throughout the brain. But,
he adds, it is not known if this poses a health risk.
According to a 2006 report prepared under the auspices of the
U.S. Congress by that country’s National Research Council, there is also
evidence that engineered nanoparticles can have adverse effects on the health of
laboratory animals, enter human cells and trigger chemical reactions in soil,
interfering with biological and ecological processes. That report also urged
precaution to protect the health and safety of workers, the public and the
Oxford University’s Dr. Alexis Vlandas is Nanotechnology
spokesperson for International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global
Responsibility also worries about nanoparticles entering the human body. He
says, “A much more proactive effort is needed to understand the complex
phenomena (bio-accumulation, degradation, unforeseen chemical reactions, etc.)
which could lead to negative impact on human health or the environment.”
Nevertheless, there is still no legal requirement anywhere in
the world for manufacturers to conduct new safety tests on nano-scale
ingredients. Nor is there any requirement for manufacturers to demonstrate that
they do not present a negative impact to the environment or to indicate the
presence of nano-scale ingredients on product labels. In fact, there is not even
an internationally accepted nomenclature, set of definitions and measurement
systems for nanotechnology, although that is being worked on. And, finally, the
social, economic and ethical challenges posed by nanotechnologies have yet to be
Nowhere are untested nanomaterials entering consumer products
faster than in the personal care and cosmetics industries. And their use is of
concern because these products are used daily and are designed to be used
directly on the skin. They may be inhaled and are often ingested. While the jury
is still out on whether nanomaterials can enter intact skin, studies show that
broken skin is an ineffective barrier. This suggests that the presence of acne,
eczema or shaving wounds is likely to enable the uptake of nanoparticles into
the body. Furthermore, in preparing its 2006 report Nanomaterials, Sunscreen
and Cosmetics: Small Ingredients, Big Risks, Friends of the Earth (FOE)
found that many cosmetics and personal care products contain ingredients that
intentionally act as “penetration enhancers,” raising concerns they may increase
the likelihood of skin uptake of nanomaterials and possible entry into the blood
Nano-scale carbon molecules called “fullerenes” or “buckyballs”
are among the ingredients currently being used in face creams and moisturizers.
They have been found to cause brain damage in fish. Even low levels of exposure
to fullerenes have been shown to damage human liver cells. Chemistry professor
Tony Ryan of the University of Sheffield in England has questioned their safety.
“I wouldn’t put buckyballs anywhere near my face,” he says. “We need to
understand more about the toxicology. One of the potential dangers…is: Are we
creating a new asbestos? The asbestosis response is based on the shape of the
particle. Part of the issue is in the shape of the molecule and how they’re
introduced. We just need to be careful about the risk versus the benefit.”
Nanoparticles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are used to
make sunscreens transparent but, says FOE, they have been shown to be
photoactive, producing free radicals and causing DNA damage to skin cells when
exposed to UV light. In 2007, Consumer Reports asked an outside lab to test for
nanoparticles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in eight sunscreens that listed
either compound on their label. All eight contained the nanoparticles, yet only
one disclosed their use.
The ETC Group, a pioneering Ottawa-based organization working on
global issues like biotechnology, conservation of agricultural biodiversity and
food security, takes a strong stand on nanotechnology. It cautions that while it
offers opportunities for society, it also involves profound ethical, social and
environmental risks, not only because it is an enabling technology to the
biotech industry, but also because it involves atomic manipulation and will make
possible the fusing of the biological world and the mechanical. In 2003, the ETC
Group called for a moratorium on research involving molecular self-assembly and
self-replication until the ramifications have been studied.
They’re not the only organization calling for a moratorium.
FOE-US has called for a moratorium on all commercial release of
nanotechnological materials and products. They say, “Given the serious risks and
impacts associated with nanotechnology’s introduction, public involvement in
decision making regarding nanotechnology and the introduction of a regulatory
regime based on the precautionary principle must be prerequisites to further
commercialization of nanoproducts.”
In July of 2007, an international coalition of consumer, public
health, environmental, labor, and civil society organizations spanning six
continents called for strong, comprehensive over sight of nanotechnology and its
products. Over 40 groups released a paper entitled Principles for the
Oversight of Nano-technologies and Nanomaterials, citing risks to the
public, workers and the environment and demanding a moratorium on it pending
research and regulation.
“Even though potential health hazards stemming from exposure
have been clearly identified, there are no mandatory workplace measures that
require exposures to be assessed, workers to be trained or control measures to
be implemented,” explains Bill Kojola of the AFL-CIO, which was part of the
coalition. “This technology should not be rushed to market until these failings
are corrected and workers assured of their safety.”
“Nanomaterials are entering the environment during manufacture,
use and disposal of hundreds of products, even though we have no way to track
the effects of this potent new form of pollution,” agrees Ian Illuminato of FOE.
“By the time monitoring catches up to commerce, the damage will already have
There is also a concern that nanotechnology will provide the
tools for continuous surveillance, with implications for civil liberties. And
then there’s the growing nano arms race, which could create a whole new
generation of weapons of mass destruction including nano-biological weaponry.
Over a decade ago, retired U.S. Admiral David Jeremiah told a conference on
nanotechnology and global security that nanotechnology will prove more
significant than nuclear weapons.
Fortunately, public pressure seems to be goading governments
into action. The Environment, Healthy and Safety Division of the Organization
for Economic Co-operation and Development has made the safety of nanomaterials a
priority. Canada, Germany, Japan, Australia the U.K. and the U.S. have created
working groups to look into the implications of nanotechnology
However, the amounts of money being spent are minuscule in
comparison to the $6 billion spent last year by governments worldwide on
nanotech. (The U.S. government’s $5 billion between 2001 and 2006 is the biggest
publicly funded science endeavor since the Apollo moon landing, with the largest
portion funding military applications.)
In Canada, the Consumers Council has recently received a $60,000
grant from Canada’s Office of Consumer Affairs to study the impact of
nanotechnology on consumers and to improve the capacity of consumers to advocate
regarding regulatory decisions.
Here’s hoping other organic certification agencies follow The
Soil Association’s lead and add nanotech to their lists of outlawed ingredients.
Meanwhile, we think that product manufacturers and distributors must bear the
burden of proof to demonstrate the safety of their products: If there is no
independent health and safety data review for a nanotech product, then their
products shouldn’t be sold.
Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over 40 years of experience.
She has also authored 13 books. This article was published in 2008.