Nanotechnology is making quiet but inexorable inroads into our everyday lives despite the absence of consensus on what the health and environmental risks might be. Should we be worried?
First of all, what is it? There are several definitions. The simplest one is that nanotechnology is research conducted at the nanoscale, or one billionth of a metre. The U.S. National Nanotechnology Institute gives another definition. Most of what we know about how atoms, molecules and the physical world behave is based on reseach at larger scales (think of the physics of a baseball or the hardness of a diamond). At the nanoscale however, properties can be observed to be quite different. For instance, electrical conductivity of carbon in the form of ‘nanotubes’ is much higher than carbon in the form of diamonds, due to it having a different structure at the molecular (nanoscale) level. Big hopes are pinned on the ability of these new properties to lead to new applications which will transform our lives.
Yet another definition proposes that nanotechnology represents a new kind of science that emerges at the nexus of biology, information technology and cognitive science at the nanoscale. This definition captures the way nanotechnology will be used to ‘improve human performance’ and as such is the most radical and controversial.
Where is nanotechnology seeping into our everyday lives and should we be worried?
Lancome’s Renergie Microlift which contains nanoparticles made of silicon and proteins
More than 300 products based on nanotechnology are already in the marketplace – sunscreens, anti-ageing creams, wrinkle- and stain-resistant clothing, window spray, dental adhesive, wound dressings for burn victims – but few of them advertise this fact.
In the final conclusions of the Grenelle on the environment, there is a clause stipulating that there should be a “mandatory declaration to the government of the presence of nanoparticles in mass market products starting from 2008”.
The potential risks to the consumer are spelled out in a paper issued last July by the Centre d’Analyse Strategique for the Grenelle as part of the working documents for the Grenelle. Consumers can be exposed directly through products containing nanoparticles such as cosmetics, food packaging, textiles or through indirect exposure to nanoparticles in the environment released through paint, aerosol sprays, air-conditioning. “The smaller the particles are, the higher the level of absorbable quantity and the depth of penetration in the body. In the bloodstream, some nanoparticles can be distributed throughout the body and accumulate in organs.” It adds: “To date it is impossible to identify a possible carcinogenic effect or a risk for the immune system, not to assert that it is innocuous.”
Friends of the Earth in France sounded the alarm last year in a campaign warning consumers that nanotechnology was now entering the food chain. The University of Wageningen in Holland is currently working on products such as Coke-flavoured nano-milk and light nano-mayonnaise. And at present there is no legislation which obliges manufacturers or retailers to indicate the presence of nanoparticles.