Tiny Particles in Your Food – The TFT Investigation Continues…
Earlier this week the Natural Resources Defense Council’s resident nanotech expert, scientist Jennifer Sass, sent us off in 10 new directions for more information. The thing about nanomaterials, according to Sass, is that, like most things, they have the potential to be both beneficial and dangerous. “When anyone talks about nanotech, it’s usually in terms of a major scientific breakthrough or in a terrified, the sky is falling sort of way, and really neither is substantiated by the research that’s out there,” Sass says.
Friends of the Earth’s latest report is a prime example. While Sass calls the fundamental information contained within the report extremely well-researched and valuable, she says some of the general conclusions, particularly that using nanomaterials is more energy-intensive than it’s worth, just aren’t borne out by the research. “They also didn’t really talk about anything that’s remotely good news in the nanotech sphere,” Sass says, pointing to cleantech wunderkind A123 Systems as a prime example. The company uses nanomaterials to build its super-small and energy-efficient lithium batteries, which are used in everything from consumer electronics to electric vehicles.
“They’re building batteries for everything from watches up to hydroelectric dams, and they aren’t using all the toxic materials usually used in batteries,” Sass notes. “Also they’re scaled up and going–their batteries are being used all over the world. Friends of the Earth just sort of off-handedly mentioned them, and that to me is very one-sided reporting. It doesn’t empower the public to evaluate these things.”
According to every environment expert out there, more study is required to ensure that we effectively regulate nanomaterials. Unfortunately, in the meantime, thousands of them are in products that are already on the market.
“Regulators will tell you they have it under control but they don’t even have chemicals under control so they’re addressing nanomaterials within a system that’s already out of control just in terms of dealing with conventional, non-nano chemicals,” Sass says.
The first order of business for those looking to understand and then regulate nanomaterials should be the study of nanoparticles used in food products and packaging, followed closely by cosmetics and personal care products, according to Sass. You read correctly: food products.
A fascinating and frightening series by Pulitzer-prize-winning investigative journalist Andrew Schneider on AOL News (they are, in fact, still around) hints at how many nanoparticles may be in the U.S. food supply. The Food and Drug Administration, which does not regulate cosmetics or nutritional supplements, says no nano-containing food is sold in this country. But according to Schneider, some of the agency’s own risk assessors say that’s not true, pointing to growing evidence that the particles are already showing up on grocer’s shelves in a number of products. Meanwhile, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist who has first-hand knowledge of Latin American food packers told Schneider that the packers routinely dip U.S.-bound produce in a nanocoating to increase its shelf life. “We found no indication that the nanocoating, which is manufactured in Asia, has ever been tested for health effects,” the researcher says.
Nanocoating, eh? In addition to dipping foods in the stuff, large food product companies are excited at the prospect of nanocoatings for processing equipment. “Nanocoatings can be applied to machinery to inhibit bacteria growth, which means they need less cleaning,” Kathy Groves, project manager of microscopy at Leatherhead Food Research told FoodProductionDaily.com. “They do not kill bacteria but prevent the microorganisms from adhering to surfaces.”
In so doing, nanocoatings could not only cut down on maintenance and down-time at factories, but also reduce the need for cleaning detergents. Germany-based company Nanopool notes that sales of its nano-scale silicon dioxide liquid glass product to the food industry have picked up over the past year. “We already have a number of clients in the food industry such as McDonalds, as well as other major players in the biscuit, drinks, ready meals, meat and fish processing sectors,” Neil McClelland, a U.K.-based product manager for the company has said. “There have been barriers to the uptake of nanotechnology in the food industry – but we are seeing those barriers fall daily as people recognize the value and benefits of our product.”
Nanopool’s product contains no carbon nanotubes or nanosilver, the two nanoparticles most associated with heath risks, but that’s not to say that its environmental or health impacts are known or understood.
Nanocoatings are also popular in the food packaging realm, where antimicrobial materials such as nano titanium dioxide are prized for their ability to keep bacteria out and freshness in. Yum.
Know anything about nanomaterials in consumer products? Know someone who knows something? Leave a comment here, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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