Category Archives: public perceptions

Nanoview report published by Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment

According to a Dec. 13, 2016 posting by Lynn L. Bergeson and Carla N. Hutton for the National Law Review blog the German government has released a report on nanotechnology, perceptions of risk, and communication strategies,

On November 15, 2016, Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) published a report, in English, entitled Nanoview — Influencing factors on the perception of nanotechnology and target group-specific risk communication strategies. In 2007, BfR conducted a survey concerning the public perception of nanotechnology. Given the newness of nanotechnology and that large sections of the population did not have any definite opinions or knowledge of it, BfR conducted a follow-up survey, Nanoview, in 2012. Nanoview also included the additional question of which communication measures for conveying risk information regarding nanotechnology are best suited to reach the majority of the population. …  The report states that, given the findings from the 2007 representative survey, which confirmed gender-specific differences in the perception of nanotechnology, ideal-typical male and ideal-typical female concepts were developed. Focus groups then reviewed and optimized the conceptual considerations.  According to the report, the ideal-typical male concept met the expectations of the male target groups (nano-types “supporters” and “cautious observers”).

…  According to the report, the conceptual approach of the ideal-typical female concept met the expectations of the female target groups (nano-types “sceptics” and “cautious observers”), as well as catering to the information needs of some men (“cautious observers”).  …

The report concludes that, with regard to the central communication measure, creating an information portal on the Internet appears to be the most meaningful strategy. .. The report states: “The ideal-typical male concept is geared towards the provision of information on scientific, technical and application-related aspects of nanotechnology, for example.  The ideal-typical female concept focuses on the provision of information on application-related aspects of nanotechnology and support for everyday (purchase) decisions.”

I have quickly gone through the report and it’s interesting to note that the age range surveyed in 2012 was 16 to 60. Presumably Germany is in a similar position to other European countries, Canada, the US, and others in that the main portion of the population is ageing and that population is living longer; consequently, it seems odd to have excluded people over the age of 60.

I found more details about the gender differences expressed regarding nanotechnology, from Nanoview — Influencing factors on the perception of nanotechnology and target group-specific risk communication strategies,

For the following findings, there were numerous significant differences for the variables gender and age:
 Women are on the whole more sceptical towards nanotechnology than men; i.e.
– men tend to be more in favour of nano applications than women
– men  take  a  more  positive  view  than  women  of the  risk-benefit  ratio  in  general  and  in connection with specific applications
– men have a far better feeling about nanotechnology than women
– when  it  comes  to  information  about  nanotechnology, men  have  more faith  in  the government than women; women have more faith than men in environmental organisations as well as health and work safety authorities
– in  some  areas,  men  have  a  far  more  positive  attitude  towards  nanotechnology than women
 Younger  people  are  on  the  whole  more  open-minded  about  nanotechnology than older people; i.e.
-younger people tend to be more in favour of nano applications than older people. The cohort of 16 to 30-year-olds is in some cases far more open-minded than the population overall
– younger people take a (slightly) more positive view than older people of the risk-benefit ratio in general and in connection with specific applications
– in some areas, younger people have a far more positive attitude towards nanotechnology than older people

In  contrast,  there  are few  to  hardly  any  significant  differences for  the  variables  “education”, “size of household”, “income” and “migration background”. [p. 77]

I also found this to be of interest,

In recent years, there has been little or no change in awareness levels among the general population with regard to nanotechnology. This is shown by a comparison of the representative Germany-wide surveys on the risk perception of nanotechnology among the population conducted in 2007 and 2012 (cf. Chapter 0). In response to the open question regarding nanotechnology, around 40% of respondents in the 2012 survey say they had not previously heard of nanotechnology or nanomaterials (cf. Chapter 4.2.2). At the same time, however, those  respondents  who did know about the topic were able to make fairly differentiated statements on individual issues and applications. The risk-benefit ratio of nanotechnology is seen slightly more critically than five years previously, and the general attitude towards nanotechnology has become less favourable. The subjective feeling of being informed about the issue is also still less pronounced than is the case with other innovative technologies. From the point of view  of  consumers,  therefore, this means that an information deficit still exists when it comes to nanotechnology. (p. 83)

It seems to be true everywhere. Awareness of nanotechnology does not seem to change much.

This is a 162 pp. report, which recommends risk communication strategies for nanotechnology,

The findings of the representative survey underline the need to inform the public at the earliest possible date about scientific knowledge as well as the potential and possible risks of nanotechnology. For this reason, the challenge was to develop two alternative target group-specific risk communication concepts. The drafting of these concepts was a two-phase process and took account not only of the prior work done in the research project but also of the insights gained from two group discussions with consumers (focus groups). Against the backdrop of the findings from the representative survey, which  confirmed the gender-specific differences in the perception of nanotechnology, it was decided in consultation with the client to develop an ideal-typical male and an ideal-typical female concept. … (p. 100)

This returns us to the beginning with the Bergeson/Hutton post. For more details you do need to read the report. By the way, the literature survey is quite broad and interesting bringing together more than 20 surveys to provide an international (largely Eurocentric) perspective.

The Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California at Santa Barbara offers a ‘swan song’ in three parts

I gather the University of California at Santa Barbara’s (UCSB) Center for Nanotechnology in Society is ‘sunsetting’ as its funding runs out. A Nov. 9, 2016 UCSB news release by Brandon Fastman describes the center’s ‘swan song’,

After more than a decade, the UCSB Center for Nanotechnology in Society research has provided new and deep knowledge of how technological innovation and social change impact one another. Now, as the national center reaches the end of its term, its three primary research groups have published synthesis reports that bring together important findings from their 11 years of activity.

The reports, which include policy recommendations, are available for free download at the CNS web site at

The ever-increasing ability of scientists to manipulate matter on the molecular level brings with it the potential for science fiction-like technologies such as nanoelectronic sensors that would entail “merging tissue with electronics in a way that it becomes difficult to determine where the tissue ends and the electronics begin,” according to a Harvard chemist in a recent CQ Researcher report. While the life-altering ramifications of such technologies are clear, it is less clear how they might impact the larger society to which they are introduced.

CNS research, as detailed the reports, addresses such gaps in knowledge. For instance, when anthropologist Barbara Herr Harthorn and her collaborators at the UCSB Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS-UCSB), convened public deliberations to discuss the promises and perils of health and human enhancement nanotechnologies, they thought that participants might be concerned about medical risks. However, that is not exactly what they found.

Participants were less worried about medical or technological mishaps than about the equitable distribution of the risks and benefits of new technologies and fair procedures for addressing potential problems. That is, they were unconvinced that citizens across the socioeconomic spectrum would share equal access to the benefits of therapies or equal exposure to their pitfalls.

In describing her work, Harthorn explained, “Intuitive assumptions of experts and practitioners about public perceptions and concerns are insufficient to understanding the societal contexts of technologies. Relying on intuition often leads to misunderstandings of social and institutional realities. CNS-UCSB has attempted to fill in the knowledge gaps through methodologically sophisticated empirical and theoretical research.”

In her role as Director of CNS-UCSB, Harthorn has overseen a larger effort to promote the responsible development of sophisticated materials and technologies seen as central to the nation’s economic future. By pursuing this goal, researchers at CNS-UCSB, which closed its doors at the end of the summer, have advanced the role for the social, economic, and behavioral sciences in understanding technological innovation.

Harthorn has spent the past 11 years trying to understand public expectations, values, beliefs, and perceptions regarding nanotechnologies. Along with conducting deliberations, she has worked with toxicologists and engineers to examine the environmental and occupational risks of nanotechnologies, determine gaps in the U.S. regulatory system, and survey nanotechnology experts. Work has also expanded to comparative studies of other emerging technologies such as shale oil and gas extraction (fracking).

Along with Harthorn’s research group on risk perception and social response, CNS-UCSB housed two other main research groups. One, led by sociologist Richard Appelbaum, studied the impacts of nanotechnology on the global economy. The other, led by historian Patrick McCray, studied the technologies, communities, and individuals that have shaped the direction of nanotechnology research.

Appelbaum’s research program included studying how state policies regarding nanotechnology – especially in China and Latin America – has impacted commercialization. Research trips to China elicited a great understanding of that nation’s research culture and its capacity to produce original intellectual property. He also studied the role of international collaboration in spurring technological innovation. As part of this research, his collaborators surveyed and interviewed international STEM graduate students in the United States in order to understand the factors that influence their choice whether to remain abroad or return home.

In examining the history of nanotechnology, McCray’s group explained how the microelectronics industry provided a template for what became known as nanotechnology, examined educational policies aimed at training a nano-workforce, and produced a history of the scanning tunneling microscope. They also penned award-winning monographs including McCray’s book, The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and Limitless Future.

Reaching the Real World

Funded as a National Center by the US National Science Foundation in 2005, CNS-UCSB was explicitly intended to enhance the understanding of the relationship between new technologies and their societal context. After more than a decade of funding, CNS-UCSB research has provided a deep understanding of the relationship between technological innovation and social change.

New developments in nanotechnology, an area of research that has garnered $24 billion in funding from the U.S. federal government since 2001, impact sectors as far ranging as agriculture, medicine, energy, defense, and construction, posing great challenges for policymakers and regulators who must consider questions of equity, sustainability, occupational and environmental health and safety, economic and educational policy, disruptions to privacy, security and even what it means to be human. (A nanometer is roughly 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.)  Nanoscale materials are already integrated into food packaging, electronics, solar cells, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. They are far in development for drugs that can target specific cells, microscopic spying devices, and quantum computers.

Given such real-world applications, it was important to CNS researchers that the results of their work not remain confined within the halls of academia. Therefore, they have delivered testimony to Congress, federal and state agencies (including the National Academies of Science, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the U.S. Presidential Bioethics Commission and the National Nanotechnology Initiative), policy outfits (including the Washington Center for Equitable Growth), and international agencies (including the World Bank, European Commission, and World Economic Forum). They’ve collaborated with nongovernmental organizations. They’ve composed policy briefs and op eds, and their work has been covered by numerous news organizations including, recently, NPR, The New Yorker, and Forbes. They have also given many hundreds of lectures to audiences in community groups, schools, and museums.

Policy Options

Most notably, in their final act before the center closed, each of the three primary research groups published synthesis reports that bring together important findings from their 11 years of activity. Their titles are:

Exploring Nanotechnology’s Origins, Institutions, and Communities: A Ten Year Experiment in Large Scale Collaborative STS Research

Globalization and Nanotechnology: The Role of State Policy and International Collaboration

Understanding Nanotechnologies’ Risks and Benefits: Emergence, Expertise and Upstream Participation.

A sampling of key policy recommendations follows:

1.     Public acceptability of nanotechnologies is driven by: benefit perception, the type of application, and the risk messages transmitted from trusted sources and their stability over time; therefore transparent and responsible risk communication is a critical aspect of acceptability.

2.     Social risks, particularly issues of equity and politics, are primary, not secondary, drivers of perception and need to be fully addressed in any new technology development. We have devoted particular attention to studying how gender and race/ethnicity affect both public and expert risk judgments.

3.     State policies aimed at fostering science and technology development should clearly continue to emphasize basic research, but not to the exclusion of supporting promising innovative payoffs. The National Nanotechnology Initiative, with its overwhelming emphasis on basic research, would likely achieve greater success in spawning thriving businesses and commercialization by investing more in capital programs such as the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, self-described as “America’s seed fund.”

4.     While nearly half of all international STEM graduate students would like to stay in the U.S. upon graduation, fully 40 percent are undecided — and a main barrier is current U.S. immigration policy.

5.     Although representatives from the nanomaterials industry demonstrate relatively high perceived risk regarding engineered nanomaterials, they likewise demonstrate low sensitivity to variance in risks across type of engineered nanomaterials, and a strong disinclination to regulation. This situation puts workers at significant risk and probably requires regulatory action now (beyond the currently favored voluntary or ‘soft law’ approaches).

6.     The complex nature of technological ecosystems translates into a variety of actors essential for successful innovation. One species is the Visioneer, a person who blends engineering experience with a transformative vision of the technological future and a willingness to promote this vision to the public and policy makers.

Leaving a Legacy

Along with successful outreach efforts, CNS-UCSB also flourished when measured by typical academic metrics, including nearly 400 publications and 1,200 talks.

In addition to producing groundbreaking interdisciplinary research, CNS-UCSB also produced innovative educational programs, reaching 200 professionals-in-training from the undergraduate to postdoctoral levels. The Center’s educational centerpiece was a graduate fellowship program, referred to as “magical” by an NSF reviewer, that integrated doctoral students from disciplines across the UCSB campus into ongoing social science research projects.

For social scientists, working side-by-side with science and engineering students gave them an appreciation for the methods, culture, and ethics of their colleagues in different disciplines. It also led to methodological innovation. For their part, scientists and engineers were able to understand the larger context of their work at the bench.

UCSB graduates who participated in CNS’s educational programs have gone on to work as postdocs and professors at universities (including MIT, Stanford, U Penn), policy experts (at organizations like the Science Technology and Policy Institute and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research), researchers at government agencies (like the National Institute for Standards and Technology), nonprofits (like the Kauffman Foundation), and NGOs. Others work in industry, and some have become entrepreneurs, starting their own businesses.

CNS has spawned lines of research that will continue at UCSB and the institutions of collaborators around the world, but its most enduring legacy will be the students it trained. They bring a true understanding of the complex interconnections between technology and society — along with an intellectual toolkit for examining them — to every sector of the economy, and they will continue to pursue a world that is as just as it technologically advanced.

I found the policy recommendations interesting especially this one:

5.     Although representatives from the nanomaterials industry demonstrate relatively high perceived risk regarding engineered nanomaterials, they likewise demonstrate low sensitivity to variance in risks across type of engineered nanomaterials, and a strong disinclination to regulation. This situation puts workers at significant risk and probably requires regulatory action now (beyond the currently favored voluntary or ‘soft law’ approaches).

Without having read the documents, I’m not sure how to respond but I do have a question.  Just how much regulation are they suggesting?

I offer all of the people associated with the center my thanks for all their hard work and my gratitude for the support I received from the center when I presented at the Society for the Study of Nanotechnologies and Other Emerging Technology (S.Net) in 2012. I’m glad to see they’re going out with a bang.

Germany has released a review of their research strategy for nanomaterials

A Sept. 24, 2016 posting by Lynn L. Bergeson and Carla N. Hutton on The National Law Review blog features a new report from German authorities (Note: A link has been removed),

On September 19, 2016, the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) published a report entitled Review of the joint research strategy of the higher federal authorities — Nanomaterials and other advanced materials:  Application safety and environmental compatibility.  The report states that in a long-term research strategy, the higher federal authorities responsible for human and environmental safety — the German Environment Agency (UBA), the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), BAuA, the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM), and the National Metrology Institute (PTB) — are accompanying the rapid pace of development of new materials from the points of view of occupational safety and health, consumer protection, and environmental protection.

Here’s a link to Review of the joint research strategy of the higher federal authorities — Nanomaterials and other advanced materials:  Application safety and environmental compatibility (PDF) and excerpts from the foreword (Note: There are some differences in formatting between what you see here and what you’ll see in the report),

The research strategy builds on the outcomes so far of the joint research strategy of the higher federal authorities launched in 2008 and first evaluated in 2013, “Nanotechnology: Health and Environmental Risks of Nanomaterials”1, while additionally covering other advanced materials where these pose similar risks to humans and the environment or where such risks need to be studied. It also takes up the idea of application safety of chemical products 2 from the New Quality of Work (INQA) initiative of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) and the concept of sustainable
chemistry 3 endorsed by the Federal  Ministry  for  the  Environment, Nature Conservation, Building  and Nuclear Safety (BMUB). Application safety and environmental compatibility are aimed for advanced materials and derived products in order to largely rule out unacceptable risks to humans and the environment. This can be achieved by:

Using safe materials without hazardous properties for humans and the environment (direct application safety); or

Product design for low emissions and environmental compatibility over the entire product lifecycle (integrated application safety); or

Product stewardship, where producers support users in taking technical, organizational, and personal safety measures for the safe use and disposal of products (supported application safety).

As a comprising part of the Federal Government’s Nanotechnology Action Plan 2020, the update of the joint research strategy aims to contribute to governmental research in the following main areas:

 characterising and assessing the human and environmental risks of advanced materials
 Supporting research institutions and business enterprises
 Science-based revision of legal requirements and recommendations
 Public acceptance

The research strategy is to be implemented in projects and other research-related activities. These  include  governmental  research,  tendering  and  extramural  research  funding, and participation in mostly publicly supported projects with third-party funding. Additional activities will take place as part of policy advice and the ongoing work of the sovereign tasks of agencies involved. Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches will be used to better connect risk and safety research with innovation research and material development. In keeping up with the rapid pace of development, the time horizon for the research strategy is up to 2020. The research objectives address the research approaches likely to be actionable in this period. The research strategy will be supported by a working group and be evaluated and revised by the end of the Nanotechnology Action Plan 2020. tegy will be implemented in projects and other research-related activities, including governmental research, tendering and extramural research funding, and participation in mostly publicly supported projects with third-party funding.  Agencies will use interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to connect better risk and safety research with innovation research and material development. To keep up with the pace of development, the time horizon for the research strategy extends to 2020.  The research objectives in the report address the research approaches likely to be actionable in this period.  The research strategy will be supported by a working group and be evaluated and revised by the end of the Nanotechnology Action Plan 2020.

It’s always interesting to find out what’s happening elsewhere.

2016 Nobel Chemistry Prize for molecular machines

Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016 was the day three scientists received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on molecular machines, according to an Oct. 5, 2016 news item on,

Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday [Oct. 5, 2016] for developing the world’s smallest machines, 1,000 times thinner than a human hair but with the potential to revolutionize computer and energy systems.

Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Scottish-born Fraser Stoddart and Dutch scientist Bernard “Ben” Feringa share the 8 million kronor ($930,000) prize for the “design and synthesis of molecular machines,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

Machines at the molecular level have taken chemistry to a new dimension and “will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems,” the academy said.

Practical applications are still far away—the academy said molecular motors are at the same stage that electrical motors were in the first half of the 19th century—but the potential is huge.

Dexter Johnson in an Oct. 5, 2016 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) provides some insight into the matter (Note: A link has been removed),

In what seems to have come both as a shock to some of the recipients and a confirmation to all those who envision molecular nanotechnology as the true future of nanotechnology, Bernard Feringa, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, and Sir J. Fraser Stoddart have been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of molecular machines.

The Nobel Prize was awarded to all three of the scientists based on their complementary work over nearly three decades. First, in 1983, Sauvage (currently at Strasbourg University in France) was able to link two ring-shaped molecules to form a chain. Then, eight years later, Stoddart, a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., demonstrated that a molecular ring could turn on a thin molecular axle. Then, eight years after that, Feringa, a professor at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, built on Stoddardt’s work and fabricated a molecular rotor blade that could spin continually in the same direction.

Speaking of the Nobel committee’s selection, Donna Nelson, a chemist and president of the American Chemical Society told Scientific American: “I think this topic is going to be fabulous for science. When the Nobel Prize is given, it inspires a lot of interest in the topic by other researchers. It will also increase funding.” Nelson added that this line of research will be fascinating for kids. “They can visualize it, and imagine a nanocar. This comes at a great time, when we need to inspire the next generation of scientists.”

The Economist, which appears to be previewing an article about the 2016 Nobel prizes ahead of the print version, has this to say in its Oct. 8, 2016 article,

BIGGER is not always better. Anyone who doubts that has only to look at the explosion of computing power which has marked the past half-century. This was made possible by continual shrinkage of the components computers are made from. That success has, in turn, inspired a search for other areas where shrinkage might also yield dividends.

One such, which has been poised delicately between hype and hope since the 1990s, is nanotechnology. What people mean by this term has varied over the years—to the extent that cynics might be forgiven for wondering if it is more than just a fancy rebranding of the word “chemistry”—but nanotechnology did originally have a fairly clear definition. It was the idea that machines with moving parts could be made on a molecular scale. And in recognition of this goal Sweden’s Royal Academy of Science this week decided to award this year’s Nobel prize for chemistry to three researchers, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa, who have never lost sight of nanotechnology’s original objective.

Optimists talk of manufacturing molecule-sized machines ranging from drug-delivery devices to miniature computers. Pessimists recall that nanotechnology is a field that has been puffed up repeatedly by both researchers and investors, only to deflate in the face of practical difficulties.

There is, though, reason to hope it will work in the end. This is because, as is often the case with human inventions, Mother Nature has got there first. One way to think of living cells is as assemblies of nanotechnological machines. For example, the enzyme that produces adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—a molecule used in almost all living cells to fuel biochemical reactions—includes a spinning molecular machine rather like Dr Feringa’s invention. This works well. The ATP generators in a human body turn out so much of the stuff that over the course of a day they create almost a body-weight’s-worth of it. Do something equivalent commercially, and the hype around nanotechnology might prove itself justified.

Congratulations to the three winners!

Nanotechnology in the house; a guide to what you already have

A July 4, 2016 essay by Cameron Shearer of Flinders University (Australia) on The Conversation website describes how nanotechnology can be found in our homes (Note: Links have been removed),

All kitchens have a sink, most of which are fitted with a water filter. This filter removes microbes and compounds that can give water a bad taste.

Common filter materials are activated carbon and silver nanoparticles.

Activated carbon is a special kind of carbon that’s made to have a very high surface area. This is achieved by milling it down to a very small size. Its high surface area gives more room for unwanted compounds to stick to it, removing them from water.

The antimicrobial properties of silver makes it one of the most common nanomaterials today. Silver nanoparticles kill algae and bacteria by releasing silver ions (single silver atoms) that enter into the cell wall of the organisms and become toxic.

It is so effective and fashionable that silver nanoparticles are now used to coat cutlery, surfaces, fridges, door handles, pet bowls and almost anywhere else microorganisms are unwanted.

Other nanoparticles are used to prepare heat-resistant and self-cleaning surfaces, such as floors and benchtops. By applying a thin coating containing silicon dioxide or titanium dioxide nanoparticles, a surface can become water repelling, which prevents stains (similar to how scotch guard protects fabrics).

Nanoparticle films can be so thin that they can’t be seen. The materials also have very poor heat conductivity, which means they are heat resistant.

The kitchen sink (or dishwasher) is used for washing dishes with the aid of detergents. Detergents form nanoparticles called micelles.

A micelle is formed when detergent molecules self-assemble into a sphere. The centre of this sphere is chemically similar to grease, oils and fats, which are what you want to wash off. The detergent traps oils and fats within the cavity of the sphere to separate them from water and aid dish washing.

Your medicine cabinet may include nanotechnology similar to micelles, with many pharmaceuticals using liposomes.

A liposome is an extended micelle where there is an extra interior cavity within the sphere. Making liposomes from tailored molecules allows them to carry therapeutics inside; the outside of the nanoparticle can be made to target a specific area of the body.

Shearer’s essay goes on to cover the laundry, bathroom, closets, and garage. (h/t July 5, 2016 news item on

Nano and food discussion for beginners

I try to make sure there are a range of posts here for various levels of ‘nanotechnology sophistication’ but over time I’ve given less attention to ‘beginner’ posts, i.e., pieces where nanotechnology basics are explained as best as possible. This is largely due to concerns about repetition; I mean, how many times do you want to read that nano means one billionth?

In that spirit, this June 22, 2016 news item on Nanowerk about food and nanotechnology provides a good entry piece that is not terribly repetitive,

Every mouthful of food we eat is teeming with chemical reactions. Adding ingredients and cooking helps us control these reactions and makes the food taste better and last longer. So what if we could target food at the molecular level, sending in specially designed particles to control reactions even more tightly? Well, this is exactly what scientists are trying to do and it has already produced some impressive results – from food that tastes salty without the health risks of adding salt, to bread that contains healthy fish oil but without any fishy aftertaste.

But while this nanotechnology could significantly enhance our food, it also raises big questions about safety. We only have to look at the strong reaction against genetically modified foods to see how important this issue is. How can we ensure that nanotechnology in food will be different? Will our food be safe? And will people accept these new foods?

Nanotechnology is an emerging technology that creates and uses materials and particles at the scale of a nanometre, one billionth of a metre. To get an understanding of just how small this is, if you imagine a nanoparticle was the size of a football then an animal like a sheep would be as big as our planet.

Working with such small particles allows us to create materials and products with improved properties, from lighter bicycles and more durable beer bottles to cosmetic creams with better absorption and toothpastes that stop bacteria from growing. Being able to change a material’s properties means nanotechnology can help create many innovative food products and applications that change the way we process, preserve and package foods.

For example, nanotechnology can be used for “smart” packaging that can monitor the condition of foods while they are stored and transported. When foods are contaminated or going off, the sensors on the packaging pick up gases produced by bacteria and change colour to alert anyone who wants to eat the food.

A June 22, 2016 essay by Seda Erdem (University of Stirling; UK) on The Conversation, which originated the news item, provides more information in this excerpt,

Silver is already used in healthcare products such as dental equipment for its antibacterial properties. Nano-sizing silver particles improves their ability to kill bacteria because it increases the surface area of silver the bacteria are exposed to. Israeli scientists found that also coating packaging paper with nano-sized silver particles [also known as silver nanoparticles] combats bacteria such as E. coli and extends product shelf life.

Another example of nanotechnology’s use in food manufacturing is nano-encapsulation. This technology has been used to mask the taste and odour of tuna fish oil so that it could be used to enrich bread with heart healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. Fish oil particles are packed into a film coating that prevents the fish oil from reacting with oxygen and releasing its smell. The nanocapsules break open only when they reach the stomach so you can receive the health benefits of eating them without experiencing the odour.

Meanwhile, researchers at Nottingham University are looking into nanoscale salt particles than can increase the saltiness of food without increasing the amount of salt.

As with silver, breaking salt into smaller nanosize increases its surface area. This means its flavour can be spread more efficiently. The researchers claim this can reduce the salt content of standard crisps by 90% while keeping the same flavour.

Despite all the opportunities nanotechnology offers the food industry, most developments remain at the research and development stage. This slow uptake is due to the lack of information about the health and environmental impacts of the technology. For example, there is a concern whether ingested nanomaterials migrate to different parts of the body and accumulate in certain organs, such as liver and kidneys. This may then affect the functionality of these organs in the medium to long term.

Unknown risks

However, our knowledge of the risks associated with the use of nanomaterials is incomplete. These issues need to be better understood and addressed for the public to accept nanotechnology in food. This will also depend on the public’s understanding of the technology and how much they trust the food industry and the regulatory process watching over it.

Research has shown, for example, that consumers are more likely to accept nanotechnology when it is used in food packaging rather than in food processing. But nanotechnology in food production was seen as more acceptable if it increased the food’s health benefits, although consumers weren’t necessarily willing to pay more for this.

In our recent research, we found no strong attitudes towards or resistance to nanotechnology in food packaging in the UK. But there was still concern among a small group of consumers about the safety of foods. This shows how important it will be for food producers and regulators to provide consumers with the best available information about nanotechnology, including any uncertainties about the technology.

There you have it.

June 2016: time for a post on nanosunscreens—risks and perceptions

In the years since this blog began (2006), there’ve been pretty regular postings about nanosunscreens. While there are always concerns about nanoparticles and health, there has been no evidence to support a ban (personal or governmental) on nanosunscreens. A June 2016 report  by Paul FA Wright (full reference information to follow) in an Australian medical journal provides the latest insights on safety and nanosunscreens. Wright first offers a general introduction to risks and nanomaterials (Note: Links have been removed),

In reality, a one-size-fits-all approach to evaluating the potential risks and benefits of nanotechnology for human health is not possible because it is both impractical and would be misguided. There are many types of engineered nanomaterials, and not all are alike or potential hazards. Many factors should be considered when evaluating the potential risks associated with an engineered nanomaterial: the likelihood of being exposed to nanoparticles (ranging in size from 1 to 100 nanometres, about one-thousandth of the width of a human hair) that may be shed by the nanomaterial; whether there are any hotspots of potential exposure to shed nanoparticles over the whole of the nanomaterial’s life cycle; identifying who or what may be exposed; the eventual fate of the shed nanoparticles; and whether there is a likelihood of adverse biological effects arising from these exposure scenarios.1

The intrinsic toxic properties of compounds contained in the nanoparticle are also important, as well as particle size, shape, surface charge and physico-chemical characteristics, as these greatly influence their uptake by cells and the potential for subsequent biological effects. In summary, nanoparticles are more likely to have higher toxicity than bulk material if they are insoluble, penetrate biological membranes, persist in the body, or (where exposure is by inhalation) are long and fibre-like.1 Ideally, nanomaterial development should incorporate a safety-by-design approach, as there is a marketing edge for nano-enabled products with a reduced potential impact on health and the environment.1

Wright also covers some of nanotechnology’s hoped for benefits but it’s the nanosunscreen which is the main focus of this paper (Note: Links have been removed),

Public perception of the potential risks posed by nanotechnology is very different in certain regions. In Asia, where there is a very positive perception of nanotechnology, some products have been marketed as being nano-enabled to justify charging a premium price. This has resulted in at least four Asian economies adopting state-operated, user-financed product testing schemes to verify nano-related marketing claims, such as the original “nanoMark” certification system in Taiwan.4

In contrast, the negative perception of nanotechnology in some other regions may result in questionable marketing decisions; for example, reducing the levels of zinc oxide nanoparticles included as the active ingredient in sunscreens. This is despite their use in sunscreens having been extensively and repeatedly assessed for safety by regulatory authorities around the world, leading to their being widely accepted as safe to use in sunscreens and lip products.5

Wright goes on to describe the situation in Australia (Note: Links have been removed),

Weighing the potential risks and benefits of using sunscreens with UV-filtering nanoparticles is an important issue for public health in Australia, which has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world as the result of excessive UV exposure. Some consumers are concerned about using these nano-sunscreens,6 despite their many advantages over conventional organic chemical UV filters, which can cause skin irritation and allergies, need to be re-applied more frequently, and are absorbed by the skin to a much greater extent (including some with potentially endocrine-disrupting activity). Zinc oxide nanoparticles are highly suitable for use in sunscreens as a physical broad spectrum UV filter because of their UV stability, non-irritating nature, hypo-allergenicity and visible transparency, while also having a greater UV-attenuating capacity than bulk material (particles larger than 100 nm in diameter) on a per weight basis.7

Concerns about nano-sunscreens began in 2008 with a report that nanoparticles in some could bleach the painted surfaces of coated steel.8 This is a completely different exposure situation to the actual use of nano-sunscreen by people; here they are formulated to remain on the skin’s surface, which is constantly shedding its outer layer of dead cells (the stratum corneum). Many studies have shown that metal oxide nanoparticles do not readily penetrate the stratum corneum of human skin, including a hallmark Australian investigation by Gulson and co-workers of sunscreens containing only a less abundant stable isotope of zinc that allowed precise tracking of the fate of sunscreen zinc.9 The researchers found that there was little difference between nanoparticle and bulk zinc oxide sunscreens in the amount of zinc absorbed into the body after repeated skin application during beach trials. The amount absorbed was also extremely small when compared with the normal levels of zinc required as an essential mineral for human nutrition, and the rate of skin absorption was much lower than that of the more commonly used chemical UV filters.9 Animal studies generally find much higher skin absorption of zinc from dermal application of zinc oxide sunscreens than do human studies, including the meticulous studies in hairless mice conducted by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) using both nanoparticle and bulk zinc oxide sunscreens that contained the less abundant stable zinc isotope.10 These researchers reported that the zinc absorbed from sunscreen was distributed throughout several major organs, but it did not alter their total zinc concentrations, and that overall zinc homeostasis was maintained.10

He then discusses titanium dioxide nanoparticles (also used in nanosunscreens, Note: Links have been removed),

The other metal oxide UV filter is titanium dioxide. Two distinct crystalline forms have been used: the photo-active anatase form and the much less photo-active rutile form,7 which is preferable for sunscreen formulations. While these insoluble nanoparticles may penetrate deeper into the stratum corneum than zinc oxide, they are also widely accepted as being safe to use in non-sprayable sunscreens.11

Investigation of their direct effects on human skin and immune cells have shown that sunscreen nanoparticles of zinc oxide and rutile titanium dioxide are as well tolerated as zinc ions and conventional organic chemical UV filters in human cell test systems.12 Synchrotron X-ray fluorescence imaging has also shown that human immune cells break down zinc oxide nanoparticles similar to those in nano-sunscreens, indicating that immune cells can handle such particles.13 Cytotoxicity occurred only at very high concentrations of zinc oxide nanoparticles, after cellular uptake and intracellular dissolution,14 and further modification of the nanoparticle surface can be used to reduce both uptake by cells and consequent cytotoxicity.15

The ongoing debate about the safety of nanoparticles in sunscreens raised concerns that they may potentially increase free radical levels in human skin during co-exposure to UV light.6 On the contrary, we have seen that zinc oxide and rutile titanium dioxide nanoparticles directly reduce the quantity of damaging free radicals in human immune cells in vitro when they are co-exposed to the more penetrating UV-A wavelengths of sunlight.16 We also identified zinc-containing nanoparticles that form immediately when dissolved zinc ions are added to cell culture media and pure serum, which suggests that they may even play a role in natural zinc transport.17

Here’s a link to and a citation for Wright’s paper,

Potential risks and benefits of nanotechnology: perceptions of risk in sunscreens by Paul FA Wright. Med J Aust 2016; 204 (10): 369-370. doi:10.5694/mja15.01128 Published June 6, 2016

This paper appears to be open access.

The situation regarding perceptions of nanosunscreens in Australia was rather unfortunate as I noted in my Feb. 9, 2012 posting about a then recent government study which showed that some Australians were avoiding all sunscreens due to fears about nanoparticles. Since then Friends of the Earth seems to have moderated its stance on nanosunscreens but there is a July 20, 2010 posting (includes links to a back-and-forth exchange between Dr. Andrew Maynard and Friends of the Earth representatives) which provides insight into the ‘debate’ prior to the 2012 ‘debacle’. For a briefer overview of the situation you could check out my Oct. 4, 2012 posting.