Nanotechnology is already here and used in hundreds of everyday products from food packaging to computer keyboards.
The manipulation of materials on a nano-scale (a nanometre is a millonth of a millimetre or about one eighty thousandth the size of a human hair), enables them to take on new properties compared to their larger form. For example, UV filters used in sunscreens produced in tiny nano form become clear rather than white when compared to their larger form.
But away from the buzz of excitement that often surrounds a new technology there have been real concerns about the risk and hazards these new materials present to both humans and the environment. The early criticism from NGOs has focused not necessarily on the technology itself but the ways in which it is being used and the lack of government regulation and risk assessment.
Much of that concern still remains. A new report from Landmark Europe, a PR agency, surveyed stakeholders across the EU and found that knowledge and understanding of nanotechnology even amongst well-informed groups was low. There was scepticism about the current regulations and support for tougher labelling rules on products that were ingested or applied to the body, i.e. food, drink, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
A Friends of the Earth report last year found that untested nanotechnology was being used in more than 100 food products and packaging including; nutritional supplements, flavour and colour additives, cling wrap and chemicals used in agriculture. It said existing regulations in the US did not require testing or labelling for nanomaterials when they were created from existing approved chemicals, despite major differences in potential toxicity.
‘Nanotechnology can be very dangerous when used in food,’ said report co-author Dr Rye Senjen. ‘Early scientific evidence indicates that some nanomaterials produce free radicals which destroy or mutate DNA and can cause damage to the liver and kidneys.’
There have also been strong concerns expressed about the widespread use of nanosilver and the use of nanotechnologies in suncreen.
Sunscreen manufacturers are adding nanoparticles to make sun-blocking ingredients like titanium dioxide and zonc oxide rub on clear instead of white. These nanoparticles can pass through human skin into the blood stream and then enter the brain, heart or liver. No-one fully understands yet what, if any, impact they will have once inside the human body.