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Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Something Nasty In The Drains

Did you enjoy your nanoparticles for breakfast? Did the others in your toothpaste whiten your teeth to your satisfaction? Did those in your fabric conditioner transfer easily and permanently to everything you sat on? Are those in the clothes pegged out on the line now floating free at least 100 metres away as they are intended to? And are all those up your nose blocking all the smells of the world?

In the first case it could be the flavourings and the flavour enhancers such as MSG. In the second we are looking at titanium dioxide. The third could be benzene or cyanide based aromatics, the fourth fabric conditioners and the fifth anything that claims to “get rid of smells” or more accurately getting rid of your sense of smell.

An interested party who likes to check out the patent submissions submitted by various companies for their personal and household products tells me that recently it has been common to reduce the particle size of the ingredients to allow substantial increases in their surface areas.

This allows much bigger impact from smaller quantities and greater penetration. When AllergyUK endorse products on the grounds that allergens etc. have been reduced they are not aware that in fact they could be helping to market products that are hugely more powerful and for those vulnerable, a great deal more toxic.

As science in the UK is devoted now to “added value” there is nobody here to look at the issues independently. Elsewhere some are able to in the name of science. At Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering have done some work on Titanium Dioxide which is widely used in a great variety of products. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation of the USA and CEINT.

Their estimate is that whilst in 2002 the use of nanoparticles of this product was negligible by 2009 the level was 2.5% and is expected to rise to 10% by 2012 and assuming rapid expansion then by 2025 could be 2.5 million metric tons. They go on to say:

"Knowing the amount of this material is important because the more of it we make, the more likely it is to enter the environment and come into contact with humans with unknown consequences," said Mark Wiesner, professor of civil and environmental engineering and senior member of the research team. He also directs the federally funded Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT), which is based at Duke.

We do not have a good handle on how much is out there, and even less about what that might mean," he continued. "Finding an upper limit on the potential for exposure is the critical first step in assessing risk. Even if these nanoparticles are toxic, a low exposure to them may limit the risk.

We just don't know yet. I like to use the example of sharks. Everyone knows they're dangerous, but not if you spend your entire life in Nebraska.

Now that the researchers have a better idea how much of this nanomaterial could be produced in the coming years, they plan to focus on specific types of products.

We want to get a better idea of where in the process these nanoparticles might be released into the air, water or soil," Robichaud said. "It could be during mining, during the production of the nanoparticles, production of the specific product using the nanoparticles, the use of the product, or its ultimate disposal."

There is no doubt that nanotechnology has valuable and desirable attributes in many fields, notably particular areas of medicine and engineering and much to offer in the future. But stuffing an increasingly wide range of exceptionally powerful chemicals designed to have a major impact on body and brain into many food products, into routine household and personal cosmetic products, and into fragrances actually designed to impact on the general environment is taking huge risks.

No wonder the bees cannot find their way home and the fish are changing sex. But there is one certainty; that is the UK government will do everything in its power to defend the shareholder value of the companies concerned whatever the casualty rate might be.

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