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Consumer Safety Groups File First Lawsuit on Risks of Nanotechnology

Consumer Safety Groups File First Lawsuit on Risks of Nanotechnology

Friends of the Earth

Concerned by the growing body of scientific reports cautioning against the unregulated use of nanotechnology in consumer products, a coalition of nonprofit consumer safety and environmental groups sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Dec. 21. The case is the first lawsuit over the health and environmental risks of nanotechnology and nanomaterials.

Nanotechnology is a powerful platform technology for taking apart and reconstructing nature at the atomic and molecular level. Just as the size and chemical characteristics of manufactured nanomaterials give them unique properties, those same properties—tiny size, vastly increased surface area to volume ratio, and high reactivity—can also create unique and unpredictable health and environmental risks.

The lawsuit demands FDA respond to a petition the public interest organizations filed with the agency in 2006, nearly six years ago. The coalition is led by the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA), on behalf of fellow plaintiffs Friends of the Earth, Food and Water Watch, the Center for Environmental Health, the ETC Group and the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy.

"Nano means more than tiny. It means materials that have the capacity to be fundamentally different. Yet more and more novel nanomaterials are being sold infused into new consumer products every day, while FDA sits idly by," said George Kimbrell, ICTA attorney. "The agency's unlawful delay unnecessarily places consumers and the environment at risk."

The eighty-page petition documents the scientific evidence of nanomaterial risks stemming from their unpredictable toxicity and seemingly unlimited mobility. The 2006 petition requested that the FDA take several regulatory actions, including requiring nano-specific product labeling and health and safety testing, and undertaking an analysis of the environmental and health impacts of nanomaterials in products approved by the agency.

Nanomaterials in sunscreens, one of the largest sectors of the nano-consumer product market, were also a focus of the action. The petitioners called on the agency to regulate nano-sunscreens to account for their novel ingredients rather than assume their safety, and to pull such sunscreens from the market until and unless the agency approves them as new drug products.

"Year after year goes by but we have yet to see the FDA do the bare minimum and require nanosunscreens to be labeled as such. This is a basic consumer right," said Ian Illuminato of Friends of the Earth. "We're well past the 1800s—nobody likes or should be forced to use mystery chemicals anymore."

Since 2006, numerous studies and reports, including agency publications by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of the Inspector General, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office, acknowledge significant data gaps concerning nanomaterials' potential effects on human health and the environment. Most troubling are studies using mice that show that nano-titanium dioxide when inhaled and when eaten can cause changes in DNA that affect the brain function and may cause tumors and developmental problems in offspring. One study found titanium dioxide nanoparticles were found in the placenta, fetal liver and fetal brain.

"It is unacceptable that the FDA continues to allow unregulated and unlabeled nanomaterials to be used in products consumers use every day," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. "It is past time for this agency to live up to its mission and protect public health by assessing the health and environmental risks of nanomaterials, and to require labeling so that consumers know where these new materials are being used."

"The scientific consensus is that nanomaterials require specific testing to account for their novel capacities and potential risks. The FDA must do such testing as part of a pre-market safety assessment in a broader regulatory initiative to protect public health," said Steve Suppan of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

For more information, click here.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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