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Nanonuisance? Nanotechnology could revolutionise our lives, but some people are concerned by the darker undercurrents.

Tuesday 16 February 2010
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Our Future Planet looks at the details.

Some people believe a future planet full of microscopic machines and microscopic agents in food or packaging could be a good thing. Nanobots might save countless lives in surgery, nanopackaging could make food cheaper and last longer, feeding millions.

But like any new technology, there may be risks. According to Wikipedia, ‘nanotech’, is the study of the controlling of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Generally nanotechnology deals with structures of the size 100 nanometres or smaller in at least one dimension, and involves developing materials or devices within that size.’

Many such advances are taking place in packaging, food science, renewable sciences and medicine, even in your kitchen cleaning product. And there may be really exciting things on the horizon. Greenpeace’s media blogs report on changes where ‘self powered nanotechnology combined with textile fibres could turn a t shirt into a charging device. The fibres embedding in clothing would be powered by movement.’

Other companies like Solar Botanic are developing artificial trees and nanoleaves. ‘To complete the tree for multi energy exploitation, the petiole twigs and branches are incorporated with Nano piezo electric elements.” reveals their website.

‘A Nanoleaf is thin like a natural leaf, when outside forces, like the wind, push the Nanoleaf back and forth, mechanical stresses appear in the petiole, twig and branches. When thousands of Nanoleaves flap back and forth due to wind, millions and millions of pico watts are generated, the stronger the wind, the more energy is generated.’

Biomimicry is an emerging science resolving human problems by adopting nature’s processes. Using biomimicry techniques, a SolarBotanic artificial tree, or plant structure functions as a passive solarwind harvester. Ultimately, energy is harvested then efficiently captured, concentrated, stored and converted to a high value energy form.’ continues the press release.

Other designs include nanoengineered ‘intelligent paints’, which can resist rust, or have other altered properties making them resistant to graffiti. The list of potential applications seems endless.

Brave new world

Fabiana Batista works for Cargill Media Relations. Cargill, a corporate international, recently launched, ‘TopScreen DS13, a product made mainly from vegetal sources, which when applied on a paper surface results in a resistant water proof barrier. The product is an alternative for polyethylene, paraffin and acrylic resin, products derived from mineral oil and that are currently used for similar applications.’ The idea might be used in packaging to save fossil based alternatives, waterproofing the inside of your lunchtime sandwich box.

“Nanotechnology has enabled us to tune surface properties at the nanolevel.” explains Batista. “More specifically the combination of the mastering nanoroughness, mastering chemical composition of the nanoparticle and thermal curing of the coating defines the degree of the super hydrophobic aspect of this biopolymer.”

“Depending on the type of substrate we can adapt the product to have an optimum nanoroughness and chemical composition to obtain the highest degree of water repellency.”

“Any cardboard or paper packaging that is submitted to condensation or liquids is an application for this product. Countries for example with high humidity that produce, transport and consume fruit, vegetables or fish are an interesting market. As Brazil is an emerging market, eager for ecological innovation, producing a lot of cardboard for fresh food packaging; we decided to enter this market first.”

Other places like Cornell University have been working on nanocomposites, and bio inspired nanostructures, many of which again might have potential uses in packaging or medicine and food. More excitingly, recent news releases explain Georgia Institute of Technology may have found how nanotechnology can fight cancer:

“We have previously shown that superparamagnetic nanoparticles conjugated to an ephrin A1 mimetic peptide with a high affinity for the EphA2 receptor can be used to capture and remove cultured human ovarian cancer cells from the peritonea of experimental mice.” explains the abstract from http://www.nanomedjournal.com/

Running scared

And this is where some people begin to get frightened. ‘The UK Lords science and technology committee is urging the government and research councils to carry out more checks into the use of nanomaterials in food and in particular the dangers for the human body,’ explains The Soil Association. (SA)

“You can argue that the GMO is removed at the fermentation stage and that as such packaging itself contains no GM. But the fact is that the genetic engineering process is very messy biologically and many other genes get modified in the process, so new biochemicals are produced. Some of these may be toxic.” explains the Association’s Gundula Azeez.

GM is not identical science to nanotech, but many similar arguments apply. From January 2008, the Soil Association in the UK banned the use of nanomaterials in products wishing to claim its organic certification. The risk may be particularly high in food, packaging or medicine, where we directly ingest the new science.

Some people are worried nanotechnology can cross boundaries and transmutate in the body. And very little real testing has been done to assess such dangers.

“There’s not been a huge amount of concrete development in this area recently, something significant is that the EU is funding Professor Vivian Howard to research a programme assessing the dangers of nanotech in food.” continues Peter Melchett, who heads up work on nanotech for the SA.

“There has been talk and discussion of research in animals which has suggested that these nanotech elements may have the ability to cross through the blood/brain barrier, there have been select committees set up to investigate this, every serious scientific body is saying lets not commercialise if we can’t guarantee whether there are any true theoretical risks, but the EU commission seems to be about the only body worldwide which is actually funding work to find all this out.”

“We know the brain is normally protected from materials in the blood to prevent them acting as external influencers, so the risk of toxicity and cell functions, though unproven, needs to be researched, Alzheimer’s is the kind of threat you may see as a result of influence on brain function.”

“We just need to be sure we don’t make the same mistake as GM, charging ahead with industry, there is talk of nanotech in things like clothing, then again it’s hard to know how much of this is marketing and how much of it is actual nanotech science.”

Melchett wants to see consistent safety checking done, hopefully responsible companies will do this anyway. The issue is also that while everyone agrees in theory more testing is needed, this is not a headline issue so it’s low on global government agendas.

“It makes sense to observe a precautionary principle, and wait for the testing to show us the way forward. If you look at GM, the first people to ban GM soya were Mitsubishi, and Heinz banned GM tomatoes. Japan, Western Europe, India and China all followed or are following suit.” he continues.

“But in the US people don’t know they’re eating GM, so there’s little disquiet there. Then again, GM free is the fastest growing health brand in the US at 67 per cent.”

“So the point is as people become aware so markets have to react in the same way, where Monsanto was forced to concede when the GM hormone milk situation occurred, where the EU wouldn’t take it so the US began to apply trade sanctions against Dijon mustard. Let’s have an informed debate on the safety.”

For some, it may be too late. ‘Over 1,000 nanotechnology enabled products have been made available to consumers around the world,’ reveals the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN). So if there is a risk, it’s already at large in the ecosystem.

The most recent update to the group’s three and a half year old inventory reflects the increasing use of the tiny particles in everything from conventional products like non stick cookware and lighter, stronger tennis racquets, to more unique items such as wearable sensors that monitor posture.’ Apparently 90 per cent of Americans want better public information on this.

‘Existing health and safety agencies are unable to cope with the risk assessment, standard setting and oversight challenges of advancing nanotechnology.’ reckons PEN 18 - Oversight of Next Generation Nanotechnology.

The horse has probably already bolted.

What are your views?  Not sure? Read the resources below for more information. Add your comment below. We welcome your thoughts and proposals. Not a Planetary Citizen? Sign up to Our Future Planet today!

Resources:

The Woodrow Wilson International Center For Scholars Reports:
Nanotech-enabled Consumer Products Top the 1,000 Mark Public Inventory Continues to Grow
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Research Brief
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Agenda and Priorities
Nanotechnology, Synthetic Biology, & Public Opinion A Report Of Findings

Nanopool - Glass is probably the world’s most versatile new technology?
Soil Association Annual Review 2008

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