Nanotech may improve the world but how safe will the human race be?

Touted as our next Industrial Revolution, the use of nano particles continues to sweep across the global business world like the high tech tsunami it is.

Inventions and new applications fly off laboratory benches and out of clean rooms faster than patents can be filed or danger to public health even assessed.

Illustration by Gary Quinn GF78

Illustration by Gary Quinn GF78

Globally, sales of nano-based products have reached $32 billion, according to Brianna Sandoval, a Harvard Law School researcher.

The number of products engineered via nanotechnology or containing nanomaterials has been steadily increasing, with the largest increases coming in the areas of cosmetics, food packaging, and dietary supplements, Sandoval reports in the upcoming issue of Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety.

The responsibility for regulating of this gee-whiz world of miracles is falling on the desks of scientists and paper-pushers at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies.

There are some very notable exceptions, but for the most part adverse reactions from these often breathtaking, new subatomic concoctions don’t appear to occupy the thoughts of many of the scientists creating the new products.

The mantra that’s being shouted from laboratory roofs seems to be: “Why worry? We’re just taking chemicals we’ve been using for decades and making them smaller.”

That absurd contention is being gently challenged, at best.

In Sandoval’s study, which was published by the Institute of Food Technologists, she points out that research shows that materials engineered at the nanoscale level can exhibit fundamentally different properties from the same material in its customary form.

The scientists and public health experts in FDA are not alone on this new battleground. EPA is grappling with the possible hazards of nano pesticides and antimicrobial chemicals.

At the USDA, two scientists that I talked with this week say they know that they will be sucked up into a maelstrom of controversy over “not-too-highly-publicized” plans to use nanoized material in food seeds and animal feed.

And what about at OSHA, an agency where they should be apprehensive about the safety of not only the scientists creating the material, but workers mixing and packing it and the janitors cleaning up after them?

“Almost nothing is being done,” one 25-year-veteran told me Wednesday. “It’s like there was never a change of administrations. The feeling here is that industry doesn’t want anyone setting standards for anything to do with this nanomaterial.”

Based on interviews that I’ve done over the past four months, it is vividly apparent that the official marriage of food and nano is imminent. But the parties have  been living in sin, with little if any oversight from FDA and the gang of safety watchdogs.

Sandoval says that it seems that FDA’s funding crisis will continue for the foreseeable future and will continue to prevent the agency from meeting its

evolving regulatory responsibilities as efficiently and effectively as possible.

“Ultimately, the agency has managed to maneuver through the minefields created by new technologies in the past; it will certainly be able to do so again,” she said.

Unfortunately, the promise of technology usually goes hand in hand with new problems, and nanotechnology is no exception, she adds.

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