Last updated: Jul 2009


Engineered nano-particles are very similar to genetically-modifed organisms in terms of the issues they raise around democratic control of the development of potentially risky technologies. Jo Southall investigates.


Democratic deficit?

The Soil Association, which refuses to give its Organic label to products containing nano-materials, summed up some of the key issues around nanotechnology in 2008.18

  • “Commercial opportunities have run ahead of scientifc understanding and regulatory control.
  • The industry is trying to win over Government backing with compelling claims about the benefts of the technology and to win over consumers by promoting individual products, whilst neglecting the fundamental issues of safety.
  • Initial studies show some negative effects and there is a list of potential health impacts that have yet to be investigated by scientists.
  • Regulators have not reacted to the scientifc evidence of health effects for products that are already commercialised, instead accepting industry reassurances and unpublished industry evidence.
  • The standard of proof is being set very high for any concerns, but low for reasons to dismiss concerns and without the context of a body of established scientifc knowledge to judge conficting arguments.
  • Concerns are being downplayed on the basis of absence of any consensus over health problems and with arguments that some nanoparticles occur in nature or have been produced by industry for some time.”


There are a range of other concerns commonly highlighted by campaigners which can be summarised as follows:

  • Big business and to some extent governments are controlling the development of nanotechnologies without a mandate from the public.
  • The possible impacts of nanotechnologies  on the most vulnerable are not being taken into account.
  • Many of the applications of these technologies are seeking to solve either problems that aren’t really problems (e.g. reducing wrinkles), or problems that already have much more sustainable solutions, such as obesity. The  Government’s own report into obesity, for example, highlighted the lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables and exercising opportunities. But for some the ease of tackling the problem through a technofix is seen as preferable to addressing access ssues. Addressing obesity in a sustainable  way could lead to the creation of more ‘social capital’ by, for example, people exercising together and shopping more locally.


The applications

In our report on sunscreens in this issue, we look in detail at the growing use of nano-technologies in sun protection. And even our report on fridges mentions in passing one or two fridges now using nanoparticles. This is because there has been an explosion in the use of nanotechnologies in the last few years in both consumer and non-consumer products. Toothpaste, cosmetics, sunscreen, diamonds, clothing, cooking oil and car accessories are just some of the new nanotechnology consumer products on the shelves in the US.19

According to an inventory collated by the US Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN), new products are now appearing at a rate of three to four a week. PEN’s database ( lists more than 800 products, from luggage to construction materials, and from bicycles to children’s goods.

Nano-particles also have medical applications, which you could come into contact with when receiving treatment.  One of the consumer applications that causes most concern is nanofoods. A recent ‘Nanofoods’ documentary stated that the Foods Standards Agency are trying to make UK regulations clearer than those in the US, where nanofoods are on sale due to a loophole (they are also on sale in China, Australia and Israel). Nanofoods are currently unauthorized in the UK, but there is an ongoing House of Lords enquiry into nanofoods and food packaging.3

In March this year, EU members voted for a de facto moratorium on nanofood.4 Nanotechnologies also have military applications said to be more potentially signifcant than nuclear weapons. In February 2009, questions were asked about these applications in the European Parliament. For more information about nanotech and the military see the 2006 book Military Nanotechnology: Potential Applications And Preventive Arms Control by Jurgen Altmann.


The lack of public debate and transparency

Since Ethical Consumer last looked at nanotechnology in issue 93 in 2005, the number of projects have expanded considerably. Go to the website and you’ll fnd a calendar with a nano seminar or conference on almost every day of the year, with titles from NanoAfrica to NanoCancer. And for some time now, nanotechnologies have also been converging with other areas of science giving us a range of new and unfamiliar terms such as nanobiotechnology, synthetic biology, DNA computing and neuroengineering.

What hasn’t expanded much is transparency. In 2006 the UK government started a two year project involving a voluntary register of ‘engineered nanoscale materials’. The register was not in the public domain and received only 12 responses.5

The Government also has a Nanotechnologies Stakeholder Forum (see links) and has spent an average of £600,000 per year over the last fve years to research the toxicology, environmental and health impacts of nano-materials. This has to be seen in the context of the £90m that the government spent in 2004 alone on other nanoscience research and commercial promotion.6

There is no current law in Europe requiring products containing nanomaterials to be labelled as such. In the UK only items with the Soil Association label 7 and all other food items can be said to be free from engineered nanoparticles. Products listed on the PEN database are only nanotechnology-based. For everything else consumers have to rely on the company to voluntarily disclose this information – as some of the better sunscreen companies like Green People have done.

Campaigning on nanotech Environmental NGOs often play a key part in stimulating public debate in the UK around technology, but on nanotech there’s almost an eerie silence, due possibly to the need to focus resources on the more urgent issue of climate change.In November 2008, Which? press released a report into nanoparticles in cosmetics. Which? called for a range of measures, including clear consumer information about nanomaterials in cosmetics and mandatory reporting by companies of their use of manufactured nanomaterials. The report also included a call for an internationally-agreed definition and that the Precautionary Principle be “applied to products where there are potential risks, but where it is not currently possible to assess their safety” and for the Government/EU to fund further research and for clear regulation. 

Other NGOs are calling for a range of measures. ETC Group – a Canadian technology campaign organisation – want a moratorium on the development, release and commercialisation of nanomaterials and nanobiotech, pending inclusive global societal dialogue and stronger oversight of emerging technologies. Friends of the Earth Europe are in accord with the Which? and ETC Group demands, but in addition are calling for a moratorium on the use of nanotech applications, and for all who market nano-products, or sell nano-containing products to the public to be held accountable for liabilities incurred by their products.13 See the Links section for further details.

For some the debate is complicated by the good uses of nanotechnologies, including some solar panels 9 and emissions control systems 10  that are already on the market, drug delivery systems that are already in use 11 ,and numerous other applications that are in use or development.


Risks and toxicity

Engineered nanoparticles exist in ‘free’ applications, such as skin creams, and ‘fxed’ applications like bicycle frames. In theory, fxed applications pose fewer risks, but this assumes safe disposal methods and no breakage.  There are also concerns around bioaccumulation.17

In addition, sometimes the distinction between free and fxed is unclear. For example, there is already evidence of nanoparticles in socks being released into the water supply.16

The commercial rewards for being frst to develop a new technology can be so substantial that they can be seen to encourage the cutting of corners. According to Jim Thomas of ETC Group, the European Commission has a view that the toxicology of genetically-modifed organisms (GMOs) can be assessed, but has a provisional view that the toxicology of nanomaterials cannot be assessed using traditional methods.

This provisional view is based on the work of the highest EU body on toxicology,14  which spent a year researching whether existing toxicology methods were appropriate for assessing nanomaterials. Their answer was basically ‘no’,15  but what little toxicology there already is on the subject tells us that “there is already much more evidence for the toxicity of nanoparticles than, for example, GMOs which have been under scrutiny far longer (although toxicity varies from nanoparticle to nanoparticle, as it does from GMO to GMO)”.

What’s often forgotten about in discussion on the safety of nanoparticles is that, if and when suffcient toxicology exists, it’s more than likely that animal testing will form a large part of testing regimes. Indeed it’s already the case that one of the most quoted pieces of research on nano toxicity involved tests on mice. For these reasons, the Dr. Hadwen Trust is calling for the making of nanoparticles for non-essential, non-medical use to be banned, for their use in medical applications to be judged on a case-by-case basis and for no testing on sentient animals.


The Ethical Consumer scoring system

Currently, ‘involvement in nanotechnology’ is a subcategory that feeds into the Pollution and Toxics column on the scoring tables that you see in the buyer’s guides. We are proposing to rename the ‘Genetic Engineering’ column on the table ‘Biotechnology and Nanotechnology’. Please let us know if you have feedback on this, although there are limits to the level of detail that the columns can refect.



2 viewed 10/5/09 
4 FoE Australia Nano News March 2009 
5 viewed 10/5/09 
6 viewed 10/5/09 
7 Soil Association frst organisation in the world to ban nanoparticles - press release 17/01/2008 
9 viewed 10/5/09 
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13 http://www.foeeurope. org/activities/nanotechnology/index.htm 
14 SCENIHR (Scientifc Committee on Emerging and Newly Identifed Health Risks) 
15 viewed 10/5/09 
16 viewed 10/5/09 
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18 Soil Association frst organisation in the world to ban nanoparticles - potentially toxic beauty products that get right under your skin PRESS RELEASE 17/01/2008 
19 Nanotechnology for sale. April 25th 2008