Friday, November 1, 2013

Nano on the Shelf and in our Stomachs

Whenever I speak about nanotechnology, and the work that goes on at the IEN, to students or public audiences, I always discuss the surge in commercial products that contain some nanoscale component over the last decade or so.  I mention that one of my favorite websites, one that is very accessible to a lay person, is the Project on Emerging Technologies.  I have also written on this blog several times about this website and the hope and hype of nanotechnology commercialization efforts.  (As an aside, I was first introduced to the Project website when I came across the instructive and entertaining video “The Twinkie Guide to Nanotechnology” created by then Project director Andrew Maynard.  Check it out for an interesting introduction to this topic.)

One of the more useful aspects of the Project website is that it hosts a database of nanotechnology-related consumer products which had grown to >1300 items when it was last updated.  However, and I can sympathize as one who has recently become active again after a quiet period, the updates stopped in 2010.  Now, the news comes out of the Wilson Center and its new collaborator the Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, that the wheels have started turning again on the Consumer Products Inventory (CPI).  The latest version of the inventory lists >1600 products, a 24% increase since 2010.  In addition to a new design that makes it easier to browse, search, and navigate the site, interested scientists and citizens can now register as crowdsource participants, contributing data about the products and the nanoparticle components they contain.  As described on the site:
“By crowdsourcing expertise our goal is to create a 'living' inventory for the exchange of accurate information on nano¬ enabled consumer products. Registered users are encouraged to submit relevant data pertaining to nanoparticle function, location, properties, potential exposure pathways, toxicity and life cycle assessment. Registered users can update product information and add new products.”
As in the past, the vast majority of products, nearly half of those in the inventory, are in the health and fitness category, although the largest percentage increase of products are in the food and beverage group.  Silver is still the most common nano-material, with titanium making a significant jump, nearly tripling in the number of products.  It should come as no surprise that there is a correlation here, with most of the food products containing nanoscale titanium (as titanium dioxide).  The purpose of this ingredient is for the whitening of products (without naming names) such as cream-filled sandwich cookies, cream cheese from a city in the Northeast, and breath mints that jiggle in your pocket.  I am not a food chemist (and do not even play one on TV), so I cannot offer expert advice here.  I will note that most of the producers of these products do not tout this nanotechnology ingredient in their marketing efforts.  You will also find, if you do a quick Google search, that there is a small cottage industry of conspiracy advocates that fears the worst.  On the other hand, numerous studies have found no harmful effects from typical exposure through food ingestion.

As in all aspects of commercial life, caveat emptor.  At least now there is an updated inventory if you want to see what nanotechnology-enhanced products there are to purchase, or not.

Last minute update:  Twinkies?  Yep, they were added to the inventory earlier this year as well.

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