Nanotechnology needs risk research, say scientists

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nanotechnology

The development of nanotechnology foods, packaging, supplements and
otherproducts will beseriously hindered unless "independent and
authoritative information isdeveloped on what therisks are and how
to avoid them", a group of leading scientists saidtoday.

The development of nanotechnology foods, packaging, supplements and otherproducts will beseriously hindered unless "independent and authoritative information isdeveloped on what therisks are and how to avoid them", a group of leading scientists saidtoday.

The group of fourteen international scientists, experts in the field,called for more riskresearch to allow the technology to reach its full potential and not be heldback by public fears,such as occurred with genetically modified foods. The call is outlined in amajor paper theypublished in the November 16 issue of the journal Nature.

The scientists also held a press conference today on the issue, notingthat with about 300 claimednano-technology products of all kinds already on the market, more regulatoryoversight and testingis needed to quell the public's fears.

Nanotechnology, which deals with controlling matter at near-atomic scalesto produce unique or enhanced materials, products and devices,has been touted as the next revolution in many industries, including foodmanufacturing andpackaging. Yet the public's concerns have been raised that nanostructured materialscould potentially lead to unforeseen health or environmentalhazards.

In the food area fears arise over the unknown consequences of digestingnano-scale particlesdesigned to behave in specific way in the body.

"The spectre of possible harm - whether real or imagined - isthreatening to slow the development of nanotechnology unless sound,independent and authoritative information is developed on what the risksare, and how to avoidthem,"​ stated the scientists.

They noted ecent studies examining the toxicity of engineerednanomaterials in cell cultures and animalsshowned that size, surface area, surface chemistry, solubility and possibly shape all play a role in determining the potentialfor engineered nanomaterialsto cause harm.

"Fears over the possible dangers of some nanotechnologies may beexaggerated, but they are not necessarilyunfounded,"​ they stated.

They noted that governments, industries and research organizations aroundthe world are beginningto address how the benefits of emerging nanotechnologies can be realizedwhile minimizing potentialrisks.

"It is generally accepted that, in principle, some nanomaterialsmay have the potential to cause harm to people and theenvironment,"​ they wrote in the Nature article. "But theway science is done is often ill-equipped to address novel risks associatedwith emergingtechnologies."

They called on the scientists - including those working ingovernment, industry and academia- to move toward risk based research, setting out what they label as thefive big challenges inthe sector.

The challenges call on scientists to develop instruments to assessexposure to engineerednanomaterials in air and water, within the next three to 10 years.Scientists should also developand validate methods to evaluate the toxicity of engineered nanomaterialsover the next five to 15years. Models for predicting the potential impact of engineerednanomaterials on the environment andhuman health should be created within the next 10 years.

Systems for evaluating the health and environmental impact of engineerednanomaterials over theirentire life should be developed within the next five years, whilestrategic programmes forrisk-focused research should be output in the next 12 months, they said.

Governments have already started looking closely at regulation. US Houseor Representatives sciencecommittee chairman Sherwood Boehlert, Republican, and ranking Democrat BartGordon have issued a following joint statement in response tothe paper calling on the White House to put together a plan and a budget toimplement the recommendations.

The House science committee wrote the law establishing a nationalnanotechnology program and has held several hearings on the environmentaland safety risks of nanotechnology, most recently onSeptember 21.

In the UK, the government in September called on food manufacturers andothers to provide anyinformation on nanotechnologies they are working on. The reporting programmeis part of the UKgovernment's bid to assess the risks nanotechnology poses to thepublic.

The UK government review follows a report in May by the country's FoodStandards Agency (FSA),which said gaps existed in EU legislation in regulating the future uses ofnanotechnology. Earlierthis year the UK also launched a review of its nanotechnology policy overconcerns about the healthand environmental risks. The review is being led by the UK Council forScience and Technology (CST).

Also this year Germany's food safety risk assessment agency commissioneda study on on the risksof nanotechnological applications in food, cosmetics and other everydayitems.

The scientists who wrote the Nature article are Andrew Maynard from theWoodrow WilsonInternational Center for Scholars. Robert Aitken, Tilman Butz, Vicki Colvin,Ken Donaldson, GünterOberdörster, Martin A. Philbert, John Ryan, Anthony Seaton, Vicki Stone,Sally Tinkle, Lang Tran,Nigel Walker and David Warheit.

Last year the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and ThePew Charitable Trustslaunched the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies to track developments inthe field.

This year the project launched on online nanotechnology consumer productsinventory at Today launcheda separatenanotechnology product directory. The directory lists eight products in thefood supplementscategory.

So far nanotechnology has made minor inroads in the food and drinkindustry. However foodcompanies see great opportunity in the technology as a means of introducinginnovative products tothe market.

Nanoscale technology also offers new opportunities for the packagingindustries, and variouspotential food contact applications have been suggested, including improvedbarrier properties,better temperature performance, thinner films for flexible packaging, andnanoscale pigments forinks.

Nanotechnology refers to the application of properties materials have atthe atomic, molecularand macromolecular scale. A human hair is 80,000 nanometres (nm) wide, a red blood cell 7,000 nm wide, and a water molecule0.3 nm wide.

Related topics: Processing & Packaging

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