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?