/ Technology

Why I’m worked up about nanotechnology

Having found out that a growing UK industry is almost completely unregulated, I’ve started to care about what goes into each product. Do you mind where companies stick their nanoparticles? I think you should.

Very few people read the ingredients list on products, but just because we don’t pore over the small print, that doesn’t mean we don’t care at all.

We simply assume that products and materials will have been thoroughly tested before they come to market. In the case of nanotechnology, this is worryingly untrue.

Here comes the science bit…

Nanotech involves the use of materials on a very small scale. These smaller ‘nanomaterials’ or ‘nanoparticles’ can be used to give certain products enhanced properties. For example, nanotech has been responsible for longer-lasting batteries, more effective medicines, and even stain-resistant trousers!

However, scientists at the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering are concerned about the potential effects of nanoparticles. Because they are so tiny, their effects can be difficult to measure.

Scientists are currently unsure about the effects of long-term exposure to these particles, particularly if they are put into products such as sunscreen, which are designed to be absorbed into the body.

Where are these nanomaterials hiding?

They’re used in lots of products, from phones to pharmaceuticals, but to find some examples I did a quick search on Boots.com. Results included whitening toothpaste, hair straighteners and a face cream which had a ‘patented Nano-Stretch network’.

You could spend hours trying to figure out what a ‘Nano-Stretch network’ is, but worryingly for consumers it doesn’t actually have to mean anything. There’s no government-approved definition, so anyone can make claims about nanotechnology if they want to make their product sound futuristic, even if there’s no nanoparticle in sight.

Perhaps even more disturbing is that companies don’t always have to tell you when a product does contain nanomaterials. Your face cream could contain an untested nanoparticle that is designed to be absorbed into your skin, and the company would be under no obligation to write that on the packet.

We shouldn’t be guinea pigs

It sounds like a scary situation, so I spoke to Rob Reid, our scientific policy advisor, to see what could be done about it. Here’s what he had to say:

“Nanotechnology is undoubtedly exciting. More effective drugs, smaller and quicker computers, and foods with added health benefits are all developments that would arguably make our lives better. We want these exciting developments to be available to all, but we also want government and industry to ensure the technology is developed responsibly.

“It is unacceptable that consumers are unknowing guinea pigs for nanomaterials with uncertain risks. Government having no idea where these same nanomaterials are being used is astonishing. There needs to be independent assessment of the safety of nano-enabled products prior to sale and a mandatory reporting to government of all products enabled by nantotechnologies.”

I’ve started getting quite curious about which companies claim to use nanotechnology, and which want to keep quiet about it. But were you aware that relatively untested nanoparticles were being used in everyday products, and are you concerned about this?

Comments
Guest
Pickle says:
3 February 2011

This is a subject new to me – I think you are quite right to call for testing and perhaps certification. They should of course be “stated on the outside of the packet” Who will do the teasting? – Which??

Profile photo of Nikki Whiteman
Guest

Hi Pickle – good question. The problem is that nanotech is so new scientists are still testing the effects of lots of different nanoparticles. For instance, we might know what the particles are supposed to do, but do we know enough about long-term exposure? Or what happens when people are exposed to different combinations of particles? This is the sort of testing that Which? would have to leave to the scientists, I think!

However, if Which? can persuade the government to regulate the industry properly then these things will have to be “stated on the outside of the packet.” We’re also looking into challenging some companies claims of nanotech, to check whether it’s truth or science-fiction =)

Guest
Linda says:
3 February 2011

I think companies should be morally obliged to list all ingredients of products we are exposed to and if they will not do this voluntarily it must be made law by the government with large fines for breach of honesty. How else are to be given a fair choice of contamination or not?

Guest
David Gerard says:
3 February 2011

“Nanotechnology” is a buzzword. There is a science-fiction version which doesn’t exist. This is why the buzzword is popular, but it has no connection to reality.

In the real world – in the ingredient lists of the products you’re talking about – it literally doesn’t mean anything different from “chemistry” or “material science”.

There is no meaningful way to distinguish “contains nanotechnology!” from “uses the work of industrial chemists!”

http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Nanotechnology – mostly written by a very ********* chemist.

Guest
Grayson says:
4 February 2011

Isn’t it interesting that when the government isn’t involved we all become better consumers?