Global Economics

You May Already Be Eating Nanoparticles


Consumer groups warn that potentially toxic manipulated materials have been introduced into foods and packaging—even before regulations are in place

Environmental groups are warning that advances in the science of nanotechnology are racing ahead of public policy with neither consumers, regulators nor scientists fully aware of the toxicity of so-called nanoparticles.

They are further calling on the European Union to introduce mandatory labelling on all products that contain them and develop strict safety laws on the basis of health and environmental risk assessment.

A new report from Friends of the Earth groups in Brussels, Germany, the US and Australia has identified at least 104 food and agricultural products containing manufactured nanomaterials, or produced using nanotechnology, which are already on sale in the European Union, and warns that consumers are unknowingly ingesting them, despite concerns about the toxicity risks of nanomaterials.

Helen Holder, coordinator of the Food and Farming campaign at Friends of the Earth Europe said: "Europeans should not be exposed to potentially toxic materials in their food and food packaging until proper regulations are in place to ensure their safety."

"In the absence of proper safety regulations or mandatory labelling, consumers are being left in the dark about the products they are consuming and are unknowingly putting their health and the environment at risk," she added.

The report, Out of the laboratory and on to our plates, which comes out a few weeks in advance of an expected European Commission proposal on the regulation of nanotechnology, argues that the current regulations are insufficient and that a more precautionary approach is required.

Although not opposed to nanotechnology in principle, the groups are calling on European policy-makers to adopt precautionary legislation to manage potential risks caused by the use of the new materials.

Currently in Europe, there is as yet no nanotechnology-specific regulation or safety testing required before nanomaterials can be used in food, packaging or agriculture. However, a forthcoming communication from the commission will offer a review of European legislation in relation to nanotechnologies.

Nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter at a scale of 100 nanometres or smaller -- the levels of atoms and molecules, is already used in the manufacture of products such as nutritional supplements, cling wrap and containers, antibacterial kitchenware, processed meats, chocolate drinks, baby food and chemicals used in agriculture.

Nanotechnology engineers say that a new era of food free of the negative effects of fatty or sugary foods is upon us, enthusing that future generations of humanity will be able to eat any kind of food no matter how rich or salty or high in cholesterol, thanks to the new science of the very small.

In response to the report, the commission said that it is striving to increase the awareness to food business operators of their legal obligations, in regards to nanotechnologies. However, the commission does feel that new legislation is necessary.

"The existing regulatory framework is already adequate to cover potential risks of nanotechnology based products," said Nina Papadoulaki, the spokesperson for health commissioner Androula Vassiliou. Instead, "the European Commission is focusing its efforts on the effective implementation of existing legislation [such as] risk assessment, data and test requirements, and specific guidance."

The commission has also requested a scientific opinion from the European Food Safety Authority on the risk arising from nanoscience and nanotechnologies on food and feed safety.

In 2004, the UK's Royal Society -- the UK's academy of sciences -- issued a report commissioned by the British government on the subject recommending that while nanotechnology may offer many benefits both now and in the future, there was an immediate need for research to address uncertainties about the health and environmental effects of nanoparticles. It also recommended the introduction of regulation to control exposure to nanoparticles.

A spokesperson for the Royal Society said: "A chemical in its nano form can have different properties to the same chemical in its larger form. It's these properties that make nanomaterials so exciting and are what manufacturers are exploiting for their products.

"However, to ensure that we properly protect people from any negative effects, it is crucial that all relevant regulatory bodies keep existing regulations under review. This is particularly important as there are already many products containing nanomaterials on the shelves, and many more expected in the future."

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