'Nano' fears spark campaigns
There is a growing movement against the unbridled and mostly secret use of nanomaterials in products when they have not been subjected to vigorous and open scientific testing. The Soil Association and the Consumer Association have both launched initiatives aimed at alerting the public to the dangers.
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of materials at the scale of the nanometre – or one billionth of a metre, which is the scale of atoms and molecules. The ETC Group has pioneered work on the issue, showing that at the nanoscale there may be unpredictable changes to a substance’s conductivity, elasticity, strength, colour and tolerance to temperature and pressure. Some nanoparticles, it is feared, can slip past immune systems and even cross the blood-brain barrier undetected.
Particles approved for consumer products at the micro- or macro-sale are usually not tested again when introduced into the same products at the nanoscale, so their effects on health are unknown. Already hundreds of nanoscale particles are showing up in products as diverse as car parts, sunscreens, tennis balls, eyeglasses and, of course, the iPod “nano”. Over 500 manufacturer-identified consumer products that contain nanomaterials are on the market.
The Soil Association this week announced that it is has banned human-made nanomaterials from the organic cosmetics, foods and textiles that it certifies. While the ban only affects organic production for goods certified in the UK, other organic certifiers worldwide are expected to follow suit. “We welcome this sensible move by the Soil Association and encourage other certifiers, companies and governments to follow their lead,” said Jim Thomas of ETC Group. “A decade ago the Soil Association led the way in creating a safe alternative to GM crops when they declared organic production to be GM-free and now they are trailblazing again – acting to protect the public from potential risks of engineered nanoparticles.”
At the same time, the Consumer Association, which publishes Which? magazine, is launching a campaign to protect the public from risky nanomaterials in consumer products. It is following the lead of the US Consumers Union which has called for mandatory labelling, regulatory oversight and increased funding for risk-related research.
In mid-2007 over 40 groups endorsed a statement of principles calling for precautionary action, manufacturer liability and new nano-specific regulations for nano-products. To date, says ETC Group, no government has enacted legislation to assess the safety or societal impacts of nanomaterials. This is hardly surprising, considering that powerful corporate interests are at stake here. A 2007 survey by 15 governments estimates there are at least 70 nanotech food-related applications already on the market. According to forecasts, the nanotechnology market for food and food processing could reach $20.4 billion by 2010, and most major food and beverage corporations are investing in nanotech R&D.
Under these conditions, no government is going to impose a tough regulatory framework. The corporations, as usual, are driven by the need to create new markets and products to satisfy shareholders. There is an urgent need to use science and technology in a different way, where health and environmental considerations come first. That will require the development of alternative, not-for-profit forms of ownership and control of production.
AWTW communications editor
15 January 2008