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Nanotech on the menu


By Joel Preston Smith

“Interest in nano is also fueled, in an aberrant way, by the visions of a fringe element of futurists who muse on biblical life spans, on unlimited wealth and, conversely, on a holocaust brought about by legions of uncontrollable self-replicating robots only slightly bigger than Einstein’s sugar molecules.”
— Gary Stix, in Understanding Nanotechnology (Warner Books, 2002).

Just when you thought it was safe not to sweat the small stuff, it turns out the truly small stuff may be infinitely worse than the large stuff—if, by truly small, we mean nanoparticles, which have come to be known, as an Armageddon of the atomic. They are the darling of high-tech, and corporate America—and are alternatively, a hidden horror, or the hope of humanity.

Nanoparticles are the virtually undetectable products of nanotechnology—a branch of the chemical and physical sciences aimed at the molecular (sometimes subatomic) control of matter. Operating at a scale of 1-100 nanometers (one nanometer equals one billionth of a meter), nanotech offers an almost deific supremacy over the elemental building blocks of nature. Such control has led to a fear that nanotech will mechanize human cell lines, food crops and other life forms, turning each thus subordinated cell into a molecular factory whose arch purpose is to transmute consumer goods, or serve some industrial end, rather than maintain life.

For farmers and consumers, nanotech appears to be one more weapon in an industrial arsenal targeted against independence, sustainability, and nature itself. Farmers are understandably concerned that the latest micro marvel—staffed, funded and factory tooled for mass production—may undermine their ability to compete in the marketplace. More than 800 commercial products, including food and food packaging, now contain nanoparticles, according to the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, and none of them hinge their existence on how much blood and sweat is poured onto the soil before sunrise. The fear is that nanotech will dust over the American farmer with its mechanistic drive for improved profit margins and atomic efficiency.

Organic, often dismissed as a specialty crop by the commercial ag community, doesn’t have nanotech’s blue-chip appeal to investors. The Bush Administration’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative, grafted into the 2008 Farm Bill, set aside $78 million for making organic more marketable, but the federal investment in nanotech dwarfs it. The National Nanotechnology Initiative was founded in 2001, and now includes 26 federal agencies, including the USDA, the FDA, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Homeland Security and others. Combined, they are expected to spend more than $1.4 billion on nanotech research and administration in fiscal year 2008. If there is a direct benefit to organic from nanotech, it’s microscopic.
The Helmut Kaiser Consultancy, which authors and analyzes strategic business plans for high-tech firms, has projected an $891 billion world market for nanotech by the year 2015. Helmut estimates that by 2010, the food-and-food processing slice of the nanotech pie will alone top $20.4 billion.

Sight unseen

Some food-industry watchdogs argue that the most insidious aspect of nano is the virtual absence of federal regulation and lack of consumer choice. Ian Illuminato, chief health-and-environment lobbyist for Friends of the Earth, points out that consumers can’t make an informed decision about the safety of nanomaterials in food, because manufacturers aren’t required—by the FDA or any governmental agency—to report the presence of nanoparticles in either consumables or the packaging itself.

Illuminato says that more than 100 food-related products are now available to U.S. consumers, despite the fact that none have been tested for safety in either humans or animals. Miller Lite is using nanoparticles to prevent bottle breakage. Toddler Health nutritional drink mix employs iron particles at 300 nanometers. Nano-scale titanium dioxide and zinc oxides is ubiquitous in over-the-counter suncreens, and is making headway as a UV-light blocker in food packaging. One U.S. company is allegedly researching a nano-coating that will allow packaged salads to retain their shelf-life for up to a month, and others are researching nano-flavors, nano-coloring agents, and milk whose color changes when it sours.

Trojan pony

Nanotech is well-positioned to invade organic, given that nanoparticles are not prohibited by USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), except in cases where their parent materials are already blacklisted. Like other U.S. regulatory agencies, the USDA NOP does not handle nano-scale materials differently than their macro-scale counterparts. The criteria for evaluating substances used as a processing aid or adjuvant (regardless of size/scale) indicate the material can not have “adverse effects on the environment” and “its breakdown products do not have an adverse effect on human health” [7 CFR Part 205.600(b)(2) and (3)]. In addition, the NOP criteria prohibits materials in cases where the substance in question is used primarily “as a preservative or to recreate or improve flavors, colors, textures, or nutritive value lost during processing” [7 CFR Part 205.600(b)(4)].

While the industrial application of nanotech seems hopeful—promising superconducting microchips thousands of times faster than current wafers, low-cost solar panels, and nano-treatments for trauma and burn victims—it’s nanotech’s foray into the grocery store is what troubles consumer groups. “One of our main concerns is that it’s in intimate contact with our bodies,” Illuminato, whose agency has requested a moratorium on the targeted production of materials smaller than 300 nanometers, says.

“When we see a technology that’s so new, and so little vetted in the scientific community in terms of its safety, it’s a huge concern for us. It’s not something we’re just using, it’s something we’re ingesting.”
England’s largest organic certifier, The Soil Association, petitioned Parliament in January, 2008 for a nanotech ban in the United Kingdom. Canada’s ETC Group, a consumer-advocacy group, has also called for a nano probibition, and in 2007 launched a “nano-hazard” warning label.

Fears of what nanoparticles do, or may do to living forms, are intimately tied to how they defy the rules that govern their parent materials. A material that’s harmless (or even helpful) on a macro level may turn malevolent in nano-form. Gold, for example, is relatively inert and non-toxic in its visible, macro state, but highly reactive (not to mention purple) as a nanoparticle. Silver looks great on bracelets and earrings, but at 15 nanometers and smaller, it’s been found lethal to liver and brain cells in lab tests.

Why the Jekyl-and-Hyde personality? Nanoparticles offer more surface area, relative to mass, therefore greater reactivity than their bulkier forbears. As a food, or drug, nanoparticles offer enhanced absorption through the skin, gut, or respiratory system, and may even defeat the body’s natural defenses against micro-invaders. The smallest known living organisms, the bacteria of the genus Mycoplasma, roughly 200 nanometers in length, are corpulent by comparison.

Nano made its public debut in 1990, after a team of physicists wrote the name of their employer, IBM using 35 xenon atoms. No small feat, for it heralded a coming age in which scientists would construct a new—and unnaturally better—world, atom by atom. Eric K. Drexler, the chemist who coined the term “nanotechnology” and popularized its messianic qualities in his 1981 book Engines of Creation, believed nano would lead to safe and affordable space travel, a “virtual end” to illness, aging, and death, and would ultimately spell the end of famine and starvation.

Without doubt, nano spells economic growth and profit—so much profit that federal agencies charged with consumer and environmental protection may have blurred the boundary between a healthy economy and a healthy public. In 2004, the FDA launched its Critical Path Initiative, aimed at speeding the development of new medicines and “innovative science and technologies” such as nanotechnology. Nakissa Sadrieh, with the FDA’s Office of Pharmaceutical Science, notes (perhaps unintentionally) that her agency sees profit and public health are somewhat interchangeable. “The FDA,” she wrote in an overview of the FDA’s position on nanotech, “is also responsible for advancing the public health by helping to speed innovations that make medicines and foods more effective, safer, and more affordable.”

The agency has streamlined the approval process for “products that were cleared to market previously,” and the question of whether or not to release such goods is “at the discretion of the manufacturer,” according to Sadrieh. To put it bluntly, the FDA only intervenes, in cases such as this, after a product has become a health risk in the marketplace.

One issue that clouds the regulation of nanomaterials by the FDA and other agencies is whether such products are considered devices or drugs. If a substance is manufactured to serve, on a nanoscopic scale, the same function as a Band-aid, wrench, or laser, is it a tool, or is it a drug? The FDA’s gavel has fallen on the former, in labeling silver particles a device when they’re used as nanomaterials in wound dressings, and for products such as NanOss™, an nano-engineered form of calcium phosphate that mimics the structural properties of human bone tissue.
The FDA’s wait-and-see attitude toward nanotech seems to conflict with concerns expressed by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which observed in a December 2006 report, “Safety and health practitioners recognize the critical lack of guidance on the safe handling of nano-materials—especially now, when the degree of risk to exposed workers is unknown.”

If NIOSH officials noted their concerns regarding the manufacture of nanomaterials, it seems reasonable to conclude that the consumption of nanomaterials would be an even greater concern. The agency’s current stance on nanotech isn’t clear; NIOSH officials did not respond to phone calls concerning the health impacts of nano, nor did Michael Cheeseman, associate director of the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety, which oversees nanotechnology and nanoparticles.

The FDA’s passive position also runs counter to that of the Environmental Protection Agency, which (along with the National Science Foundation) funds the University of California’s Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology in Los Angeles. The EPA notes that “only a few hundred of the 50,000 industrial chemicals [now manufactured] have undergone toxicity testing, making it very challenging to control their toxicological impact in the environment.”

Gregory Jaffe, director of the Biotechnology Project for The Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., concludes, “Nanotech is moving forward, but our ability to regulate it hasn’t caught up with the state of the science. That’s undermined the public’s confidence in our governmental regulators. There’s a question of trust that federal agencies aren’t addressing.”

Read a primer on nanotech:
Search a database of 800 “manufacturer identified’ nanotech products (courtesy of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies):
Send contributions to the database, or submit updates for nanomaterials currently listed: .
Navigate the landscape of U.S. nanotech labs and industrial sites: (the map identifies nine nanotech sites for the Portland area, and one each for Philomath, Eugene and Medford).
Read Out of the Laboratory and on to Our Plates:
View the nanoworld (through an electron microscope, courtesy of the FEI Company):
Visit ETC’s gallery of nano-hazard graphics:

Joel Preston-Smith is a writer living in Portland, Ore. Info on his program“Night of a Thousand Stars and Other Portraits of Iraq,” is viewable at

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