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Nanoparticles can be used to deliver vaccines, treat tumours, clean up oil spills, preserve food, protect skin from sun and kill bacteria. They're so useful for purifying, thickening, coloring and keeping food fresh that they're added to more products every year, with the nanofoods market projected to reach US$20.4 billion by 2020. Nanoparticles are the new scientific miracle that will make our lives better! Some people say they'll usher in the next industrial revolution.
Hold on … Haven't we heard that refrain before?
Nanotechnology commonly refers to materials, systems and processes that exist or operate at a scale of 100 nanometres or less, according to U.S.-based Friends of the Earth. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter—about 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. An Friends of the Earth report finds use of unlabelled, unregulated nano-ingredients in food has grown substantially since 2008. Because labelling and disclosure are not required for food and beverage products containing them, it's difficult to determine how widespread their use is. Nanoparticles are also used in everything from cutting boards to baby bottles and toys to toothpaste.
"Major food companies have rapidly introduced nanomaterials into our food with no labels and scant evidence of their safety, within a regulatory vacuum," says report author Ian Illuminato, Friends of the Earth health and environment campaigner. "Unfortunately, despite a growing body of science calling their safety into question, our government has made little progress in protecting the public, workers and the environment from the big risks posed by these tiny ingredients."
Studies show nanoparticles can harm human health and the environment. They can damage lungs and cause symptoms such as rashes and nasal congestion, and we don't yet know about long-term effects. Their minute size means they're "more likely than larger particles to enter cells, tissues and organs" and "can be more chemically reactive and more bioactive than larger particles of the same chemicals," Friends of the Earth says. A Cornell University study found nanoparticle exposure changed the structure of intestinal-wall lining in chickens.
Like pesticides, they also bioaccumulate. Those that end up in water—from cosmetics, toothpaste, clothing and more—concentrate and become magnified as they move up the food chain. And in one experiment, silver nanoparticles in wastewater runoff killed a third of exposed plants and microbes, according to a CBC online article.
Their use as antibacterial agents also raises concerns about bacterial resistance and the spread of superbugs, which already kill tens of thousands of people every year.
The Wilson Center, an independent research institution in Washington, D.C., recently created a database of "manufacturer-identified" nanoparticle-containing consumer products. It lists 1,628, of which 383 use silver particles. The second most common is titanium, found in 179 products. While acknowledging that "nanotechnologies offer tremendous potential benefits" the Center set up its Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies to "ensure that as these technologies are developed, potential human health and environmental risks are anticipated, properly understood, and effectively managed."
As is often the case with such discoveries, widespread application could lead to unintended consequences. Scientists argue we should follow the precautionary principle, which states proponents must prove products or materials are safe before they're put into common use. Before letting loose such technology, we should also ask who benefits, whether it's necessary and what environmental consequences are possible.
Friends of the Earth has called on the U.S. government to impose a moratorium on "further commercial release of food products, food packaging, food contact materials and agrochemicals that contain manufactured nanomaterials until nanotechnology-specific safety laws are established and the public is involved in decision-making."
The group says we can protect ourselves by choosing fresh, organic and local foods instead of processed and packaged foods and by holding governments accountable for regulating and labelling products with nanoparticles.
Nanomaterials may well turn out to be a boon to humans, but we don't know enough about their long-term effects to be adding them so indiscriminately to our food systems and other products. If we've learned anything from past experience, it's that although we can speculate about the benefits of new technologies, reality doesn't always match speculation, and a lack of knowledge can lead to nasty surprises down the road.
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Poverty and violence in Central America are major factors driving migration to the United States. But there's another force that's often overlooked: climate change.
Retired Lt. Cmdr. Oliver Leighton Barrett is with the Center for Climate and Security. He says that in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, crime and poor economic conditions have long led to instability.
"And when you combine that with protracted drought," he says, "it's just a stressor that makes everything worse."
Barrett says that with crops failing, many people have fled their homes.
"These folks are leaving not because they're opportunists," he says, "but because they are in survival mode. You have people that are legitimate refugees."
So Barrett supports allocating foreign aid to programs that help people in drought-ridden areas adapt to climate change.
"There are nonprofits that are operating in those countries that have great ideas in terms of teaching farmers to use the land better, to harvest water better, to use different variety of crops that are more resilient to drought conditions," he says. "Those are the kinds of programs I think are needed."
So he says the best way to reduce the number of climate change migrants is to help people thrive in their home countries.
Reporting credit: Deborah Jian Lee / ChavoBart Digital Media.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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