Now That the Secret’s Out of the (Sigg) Bottle, It’s Time to Worry about Nanotechnology


Want to eat an entire pint of ice cream every night and not gain an ounce? Go right ahead. Wondering if that pork chop you left in the back of the fridge is still good? In the future, you may just have to look at the package to know. If the wrapping has changed color, you’ll know there are harmful bacteria in the food. But wait! The magic wrapping sensed the presence of bacteria and released an anti-microbial to prevent the meat from going off. That old pork chop is still plenty safe to eat.

Welcome to the future world of nanoscale science.

While we’ve been worried about Sigg and Monsanto, scientists have been busy engineering particles of familiar substances like silver and titanium dioxide on the molecular scale. Nanotechnology completely changes their properties, allowing for a brave new world of miraculous goods.

Though the scenarios above are still in the future, the fruit borne by current nanotechnology research can make tennis rackets lighter and stronger, and sunscreen, vitamins and energy drinks more potent. Nanotechnology is common in electronics and appliances and it’s starting to enter consumer goods, toys, and food packaging and preparation. Nano silver has incredible antimicrobial properties, making it ideal for anti-bacterial cutting boards and food storage. Food itself is the next frontier.

Kraft, Campbell, Heinz, Nestle and many of the big food conglomerates are heavily involved in developing nanotechnology. Here’s why:

On the nano scale, flavors and colors are more potent, allowing food manufacturers to process foods much more cheaply. Ice cream can be engineered to have an incredibly low fat content while retaining all the same creamy, delicious mouthfeel. Antimicrobial packaging and elements in the food itself can increase shelf life and protect profits. Agricultural fertilizers and pesticides can be nano-engineered to be more effective in smaller doses.

But is anyone asking what happens when the runoff hits our waterways?

Of course there’s a lot of possible good in the development of nanotechnology. What’s wrong with a lighter, stronger tennis racket? Or high performing fabric? Nanotechnology can even be used to strengthen bio-plastic bags, increasing their usefulness and leading to less plastic use overall.

But, if nanotechnology can completely change the properties of the substances it is applied to, what kind of impact might this have on our health? Nobody is really doing the studies to find out.

Nano particles are tiny. Really tiny. To give you an idea, the definition of a nano particle is 100 nanometers or less. A human hair is 80,000 nano meters wide. Something that tiny can easily enter our bodies through our lungs or through broken skin, and possibly cause harm.

In China recently, paint factory workers working with nano paint particles died as a result of inhaling the tiny paint bits. This tragic event is the closest thing to a study that has been done on humans. There have been studies on rats that show nano materials can disrupt cell functioning, cause lesions on organs and affect the immune system. Nothing at all is known about the effects of long-term exposure.

The less cynical among us might think that the government will do its best to protect us from anything so potentially harmful. But that’s not the case. So far the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not put any regulations in place for nanotechnology because industry lobbyists have convinced them that the substances being engineered are not new substances, so there is no need to regulate them. Charles Margulis of the Center for Environmental Health likens the current situation with nanotech to the issue of regulating GMOs. Similarly, GMO seeds are not seen as new entities. Regulators have been convinced that genetically modified plants are just plants bred to have certain characteristics. Because plant breeding has a long history, the argument was made that there was nothing new to regulate.

But it’s not true. Like GMOs, substances that have been engineered using nanotechnology have completely different properties than they did originally. Companies argue that these new substances can’t be regulated, yet they have no problem applying for patents. I believe if something can be patented, it should be subject to regulation.

Thus far there is little movement toward regulation or labeling of nanotech goods and foods. The FDA says it will release a guidance document by 2010. According to Margulis, a guidance document is merely a suggestion to industry on words and phrases to use in marketing and labeling. It’s not binding and it’s not regulatory in nature. Guidance documents are generally developed with the help of focus groups and relate more to consumer understanding of the terms than to the consumer’s right to know.

On a positive note, as we were going to press with this article, the National Organic Standards Board announced that one of the items it will consider in its upcoming November meeting is a measure that will prohibit nanotechnology in organic production, processing and packaging.

If we can’t be sure the government will protect us, what can we as consumers do to protect ourselves? According to Margulis, the same advice for avoiding GMOs applies here: “Buy local regional foods. Know your sources. Simplify your diet and eat more whole foods and fewer processed foods, and you’ll be less likely to be exposed to nanotechnology.”

Right now public understanding about nanotechnology is low. I’m guessing that once the word gets out, there will be a repeat of the situation we’re in now with GMOs. Consumers will not be immediately receptive to the new technology and will want some assurances and regulation.

Yet how will we government apply regulations to something that is already pervasive? I also predict a repeat of the same types of arguments we are subject to now in defense of biotechnology. Namely, that biotech is the only way we will feed a growing world population. Because nanotechnology does have so much potential for good, industry will attempt to own the debate with guilt inducing arguments about how we need an endless abundance of cheap food to feed the world, while accusing opponents of being anti-science, out-of-touch Luddites.

I’ll leave you with the words of Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems. I don’t think anyone would ever call Joy anti-science or anti-technology. Back in 2000 he wrote about nanotechnology and other technologies in an article for Wired Magazine titled, Why the Future Doesn’t’ Need Us.

“Unfortunately, as with nuclear technology, it is far easier to create destructive uses for nanotechnology than constructive ones. Nanotechnology has clear military and terrorist uses, and you need not be suicidal to release a massively destructive nanotechnological device – such devices can be built to be selectively destructive, affecting, for example, only a certain geographical area or a group of people who are genetically distinct. An immediate consequence of the Faustian bargain in obtaining the great power of nanotechnology is that we run a grave risk – the risk that we might destroy the biosphere on which all life depends.”

Further information:

Learn about nano consumer products.

Read about nanotechnology on the Center for Environmental Health Blog.

Image: nano droplet of water by vitroid

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.