There is no firmly established definition of nanotechnology but this extremely diverse field could simply be described as the science of the extraordinarily small. A human hair is 80,000 nanometers wide and nanomaterials are commonly accepted to reside in the 100 nanometer or smaller range. In short, nanotechnology operates at the atomic and molecular levels.
Nanotechnology is a very promising field and it seems almost certain that humankind will benefit, perhaps greatly, from further study. Equally certain is that some applications of nanotechnology will prove to be dangerous to human and environmental health. Unfortunately, as with commercially produced chemicals, we are once again putting the cart before the horse in a big way. The following lists just a few consumer products already utilizing nanomaterials:
- Food (nanofood) & food packaging products
- Many agricultural products
- Household appliances
In order to keep a huge topic manageable, the rest of this post will concentrate on the food, food packaging and agricultural applications of nanotechnology.
Nanotech In Our Food Supply, Really?
As frequently occurs with any new and exciting technology a debate is brewing between the keep-government-regulation-out–of–my-hair-so-as-not-to-stifle-innovation crowd and the let’s-make-sure-this-stuff-is-safe-before-releasing-it-on-unsuspecting-consumers crowd. As of this writing, the “innovators” and big business are winning.
If you don’t believe that consider the current state of affairs in the US:
- No nanotech-specific regulation or safety testing is required before nanomaterials can be used in food, food packaging or agricultural consumer products.
- There are no labeling laws relating to nano ingredients that are in our food supply or its packaging.
In essence, the public’s right to make up their own minds regarding the consumption of nanofoods and materials is being usurped in much the same fashion as with genetically modified foods. This is, in the classic sense of the word, an outrage.
I’m no Luditte. I’m all for innovation. I support clean energy, stem cell and, yes, nanotech research. But it is equally outrageous that we would not regulate a potentially dangerous new technology in any way, shape or form before unleashing it on the public. It is the height of recklessness and clearly a sop to the usual monied interests.
Furthermore it is a false choice between requiring safety research and encouraging innovation. Research does not stifle innovation, it creates it! It is research that will show us the way forward as well as the paths to avoid. This is a far superior approach to creating instant profits by using the public as a beta tester.
Make no mistake, the pressure from industry to use and develop nanotechnology will be enormous, and I’m actually fine with that. But if I’m any sort of observer of such things, they won’t want to be regulated – at all. And therein lies the problem.
Two last points:
- Enormous amounts of money are going to be made in the field of nanotechnology in the decades ahead.
- On the smaller half of the nanotech scale, 50 nanometers and smaller, the laws of the universe as we know them give way to the bizarre and largely mysterious laws of quantum physics.
Did I mention I favor regulation of nanotechnology?