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Dispatches from IFT

Nanotechnology: The new asbestos?

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 17-Jun-2009

The safety risks of nanotechnology use by the food industry could make it “the new asbestos”, says toxicologist Dr George Burdock of the Burdock Group.

Nanotechnology refers to controlling matter at an atomic or molecular scale measured in nanometers, or millionths of millimeters. In the food industry, the technology has excited manufacturers as its potential uses are explored, including detecting bacteria in packaging, or producing stronger flavors and colorings.

But Dr Burdock claims that manufacturers lack understanding about how particles can change when they are shrunk to nano-size, and the current economic situation has exacerbated potential dangers, as some cost-cutting companies could look to cheaper, less reliable safety assessments.

Altered properties

One of the major safety worries about nanotechnology has been the suggestion that such small particles could feasibly cross cellular membrane barriers, meaning that an ingredient that is currently GRAS (generally recognized as safe) could become dangerous if it is nano-sized – a worry that Dr Burdock shares.

He told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “The problem is that a lot of food ingredient manufacturers are looking at ingredients and saying that a product is GRAS, but if it’s nano-sized it’s going to have different properties.

“The answer is that if you nano-size the particle you have to test it like a new substance. This is what could make nanotechnology the new asbestos.”

His views were echoed in a new report from the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN) released on Tuesday which discusses what it terms “disturbing asbestos-nanotech parallels”.

According to the report, “some of these technologies are showing signs of posing serious hazards to human health and the environment, including the same kind of grave threats resulting from exposure to asbestos.”

FDA testing

However, Dr Burdock agreed with the FDA’s view that it already has the tools it needs to test the technology’s safety, saying: “Even though a nanotech particle takes on different properties you can still test its safety with standardized testing.”

But problems could arise, he said, because – unlike genetic engineering – nanotechnology is “very cheap to get into”, a situation that further opens up the potential for unethical practices, such as not testing a newly nano-sized ingredient.

“Manufacturers have a moral and ethical responsibility to test. Eighty percent of people play by the rules but you still have the bottom feeders,” he said.

For those manufacturers that do choose to explore the uses of nanotechnology, Dr Burdock said: “Once food manufacturers get something approved their job isn’t over. They have got to be very proactive…New data is being developed all the time and when it is, they need to make sure the person checking their product knows what they are doing.”

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