Well, this report freaked me out a fair bit. I’ve been reading lately on world scenarios of the future (I think I’m in some sort of dark phase at the moment!) and there’s lot of stuff about robots going wild, cyborgs, human/machine convergence and so on. And in the course of this future fest, I came across a report by Friends of the Earth. The scary bit is reading just how much nanotechnology aka grey goo is in our food chain right now. Not in the future but right now.
The report is called Out of the Laboratory and on to our Plates. In case you don’t know exactly what nanotechnology is all about and why it might pose dangers, I’ll tell you. Nanotechnology (aka molecular manufacturing) is posited as the new Industrial Revolution. It’s the design and production of extremely small electronic devices built from individual atoms and molecules. So the materials, products or structures created exist or operate at a scale of 100 nanometres (nm) or less. So it’s functional systems at the molecular level. And it’s about maneuvering things atom by atom (I think Richard Feynman described it this way).
So what I hear you ask. Clearly, there are benefits to nanotechnology. Existing products and processes could be more cost effective, durable and efficient and entirely new products could be created. But this is only if we have responsible nanotechnology because it could be used, for example, by criminals or terrorists to rapidly produce biological and chemical weapons that are easier to conceal or detect. Nano-factory built weapons could be tiny and available on a black market. The smallest insect is 200 microns (One millionth of a metre, or about 1/25,000 of an inch) so this gives you some idea of the size of a nano-tech built weapon that could inject a toxin into an unprotected human.
Nanotechnology will clearly deliver cheaper products but at what cost to the environment? And I can just imagine an increased surveillance society because of the need to regulate and monitor the uses and abuses of nanotechnology. Then there’s all this business about Drexler’s grey-goo outbreak (or nanodisaster) – nanomachines replicating themselves and eating up the biosphere.
So what does the report have to say?
- 104 products have been identified that contain nanoparticles, nano-emulsions and nano-capsules and these products are on sale internationally
- nanoparticles can be more chemically reactive and bioactive than larger particles. They can enter our bodies and potentially cause damage to tissues, organs and cells. So nano products could be more toxic.
- nanotechnology has food industry applications such as stronger flavouring and colourings, or anti-bacterial ingredients in packaging to sense food spoilage. Already nanoparticles of silver, titanium dioxide, zinc and zinc oxide are used in nutritional supplements and food packaging. Laboratory tests have shown these nanoparticles to be highly toxic to cells.
- nanocapsules can contain ingredients like co-enzyme Q10 or Omega 3.
- because there are no laws or regulations yet requiring labelling of manufactured nano ingredients and additives in food and packaging, we cannot choose to eat nano-free.
The report has a handy table outlining the type of product, product name and manufacturer and the nano content. So for example, a product called Baby Dream Nano Silver (a baby’s milk bottle) contains antibacterial ingredients to prevent infections and the nano content is nanoparticles of silver. Oat Chocolate has 300nm particles of iron. Adhesive for McDonald’s burger containers, Ecosynthetix, contains 50-150nm starch nanospheres. German company, Aquanova, uses nanocapsules of active ingredients such as vitamins C and E and fatty acids used as preservatives.
Read the report here – it’s freaky stuff. Nanotechnology sounds cool – liquids that can change colour, taste and texture, tomato sauce and mayonnaise bottles that you don’t need to shake because nanoparticles will create non-stick packaging. All sounds good, but read about the implications for your health!!