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Nanoparticles in your food? You’re already eating them

I’ve been keeping my eye on the role of nanotechnology in food for a few years now, so I was interested to see a feature-length investigation called “Eating Nano” in this month’s E Magazine. In it, E editor Brita Belli takes a deep dive into the growing role of nanotechnology in food and agriculture, the current lack of oversight and regulations, and the growing consensus that more information and transparency are both sorely needed in relation to this growing field.
Nanotechnology involves the engineering and manipulation of particles at a nano scale. Nanoparticles, as they’re called, are measured in nanometers or billionths of one meter. Another way to put it: If a nanoparticle were the size of a football, a red blood cell would be the size of the field. Although some nanoparticles have been found to exist in nature (carbon nanoparticles exist in caramelized foods, for instance, and silverware has been shown to shed nano-sized silver particles), it’s the nanoparticles that are engineered in laboratories that have environmental health advocates concerned.
Here’s the thing: It turns out most materials start behaving differently at that size. According to the British corporate accountability organization As You Sow, which has been keeping tabs on the nanotech industry for several years, “materials reduced to the nanoscale either through engineered or natural processes can suddenly show very different properties compared to what they exhibit on a macroscale, enabling unique applications such as alterations in color, electrical conductance, or permeability.”
Considering the fact that nanoparticles are now used to help deliver nutrients, keep food fresh for longer, and act as thickening and coloring agents in processed foods, these “different properties” might be cause for concern. Or – at the very least – they might be reason enough to conduct thorough research into their health impacts.
In actuality, companies are not required to disclose nano-sized ingredients, nor is there much active questioning about their safety. Instead, Belli writes, “From the government’s perspective, nano forms of silver, iron or titanium are no different, fundamentally, from their scaled-up counterparts which have already been safety tested, so the agency has ushered the particles into the food supply under the Generally Recognized as Safe provision.”
I’ve been hearing about nanoparticles in food packaging for a while now (it’s a market Belli says is expected to reach $20 billion by 2020), but I had no idea that there was nano-coating in the works for bananas. And what I was most surprised to learn is just how many food products already contain nanoparticles. As Belli writes: Nanoparticles can be used to purify water, as anticaking and gelatin-forming agents and in packaging to protect against UV light, prevent the growth of microbes or detect contamination. Titanium dioxide is added to a huge swath of products in nano form including paints, paper and plastics but also lends white pigment to most toothpastes and many processed foods, including Mentos, Trident and Dentyne gum, M&Ms, Betty Crocker Whipped Cream Frosting, Jello Banana Cream Pudding, Vanilla Milkshake Pop Tarts and Nestlé Original Coffee Creamer. The aforementioned products were featured in a report in February 2012 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology which concluded that each of us likely consumes some amount of titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles each day, and children under 10 likely consume the greatest amounts (around 1-2 mg TiO2 per kilogram body weight per day) due to their higher intake of frosted foods, candy, gum and other sweets. Although there is less science focused on ingested nanotech particles than on, say, the ones that are inhaled in industrial environments, Belli does point to the few studies that exist, including a recent one out of Cornell University that looked at chickens’ abilities to absorb iron after eating nanoparticles generally considered safe for human consumption. In it, researchers found that acute exposure to the particles changed the structure of the lining of the chickens’ intestinal walls, a change the lead scientist noted “serves to underscore how such particles, which have been widely studied and considered safe, cause barely detectable changes that could lead to, for example, over-absorption of other, harmful compounds.”
When it comes to questions about the health effects of eating nanoparticles, Belli quotes a guide on the American Society of Safety Engineers’ website, which reads: Nanoparticles may be ingested through drinking water, food additives, atmospheric dust on food, toothpaste and dental fillings and implants. Ingested nanoparticles can then be absorbed through ‘Peyer’s Plaques’ or small nodules in intestinal tissue that are part of the immune defense system. If nanoparticles enter the digestive system and proceed into the bloodstream, they could move throughout the body and cause damage. Of course, most of this – and much of the science Belli points to – is preliminary, based on very little hard science. And if that lack of a cautionary approach to science in a multibillion-dollar industry sounds familiar, that’s because – well, it is. The comparison to genetically modified foods is unavoidable.
In fact, Timothy Duncan, a research chemist from the Food and Drug Administration, admitted as much about the nanotech industry (which likely has thousands of food and food packaging products in the research and development stage) while writing in the journal Nature Nanotechnology last year. “What’s holding back the introduction of nanofoods is the hesitation of the food industry, fearing a public backlash along the lines of what happened with genetically modified foods, and public fears in some countries about tampering with nature,” Duncan wrote.
And considering how little media coverage these larger questions about nanotechnology and food have received – not to mention inclusion on the larger “food movement” laundry list – it looks like the lesson the food industry has learned from GMOs is not one about the importance of transparency, but quite the opposite.

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Science & Technology

Sunlight in a Bottle? Its Real, and its Changing Millions of Lives‏

Alfredo Moser’s invention is lighting up the world. In 2002, the Brazilian mechanic had a light-bulb moment and came up with a way of illuminating his house during the day without electricity – using nothing more than plastic bottles filled with water and a tiny bit of bleach.

In the last two years his innovation has spread throughout the world. It is expected to be in one million homes by early next year.

So how does it work? Simple refraction of sunlight, explains Moser, as he fills an empty two-litre plastic bottle.

“Add two capfuls of bleach to protect the water so it doesn’t turn green [with algae]. The cleaner the bottle, the better,” he adds.

Wrapping his face in a cloth he makes a hole in a roof tile with a drill. Then, from the bottom upwards, he pushes the bottle into the newly-made hole.
“You fix the bottle in with polyester resin. Even when it rains, the roof never leaks – not one drop.”

The inspiration for the “Moser lamp” came to him during one of the country’s frequent electricity blackouts in 2002. “The only places that had energy were the factories – not people’s houses,” he says, talking about the city where he lives, Uberaba, in southern Brazil.

The lamps work best with a black cap – a film case can also be used

“An engineer came and measured the light,” he says. “It depends on how strong the sun is but it’s more or less 40 to 60 watts,” he says.

While he does earn a few dollars installing them, it’s obvious from his simple house and his 1974 car that his invention hasn’t made him wealthy. What it has given him is a great sense of pride.

Following the Moser method, MyShelter started making the lamps in June 2011. They now train people to create and install the bottles, in order to earn a small income.

In the Philippines, where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, and electricity is unusually expensive, the idea has really taken off, with Moser lamps now fitted in 140,000 homes.

The idea has also caught on in about 15 other countries, from India and Bangladesh, to Tanzania, Argentina and Fiji.

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The sports car that runs on SALTWATER: Vehicle goes from 0 to 60mph in 2.8 seconds

Sports cars may not have the best reputation for being environmentally-friendly, but this sleek machine has been designed to reach 217.5 mph (350 km/h) – using nothing but saltwater.

Its radical drive system allows the 5,070lbs (2,300kg) Quant e-Sportlimousine to reach 0-60 mph (100 km/h) in 2.8 seconds, making it as fast as the McLaren P1.

After making its debut at the 2014 Geneva Motor Show in March, the saltwater technology has now been certified for use on European roads.

The 920 horsepower (680 kW) Quant e-Sportlimousine uses something known as an electrolyte flow cell power system to power four electric motors within the car.
It works in a similar way to a hydrogen fuel cell, however, the liquid used for storing energy is saltwater.

The liquid passes through a membrane in between the two tanks, creating an electric charge. This electricity is then stored and distributed by super capacitors.

The car carries the water in two 200-litre tanks, which in one sitting will allow drivers to travel up to 373 miles (600km).

Overall, the four-seater is 5.25 metres (0.4ft) long, 2.2 metres wide (7.2ft), the 1.35 metre (4.4ft).

Its 22-inch wheels sit just beneath double gull-wing doors which feature ‘Chrystal Lake Blue’ paint.

Inside is a full-length interactive dash, with wood-theme features and an Android-based entertainment system.

No price or sale date has yet been revealed, but some experts suggest it could cost more than £1 million ($1.7 million)

NanoFlowcell AG, a Lichtenstein-based company behind the drive, is now planning to test the car on public roads in Germany and elsewhere in Europe as the company prepares for series production.

It claims the technology offers five times the energy capacity of lithium-ion batteries of the same weight.

‘We’ve got major plans, and not just within the automobile industry,’ says NanoFlowcell AG Chairman of the Board Professor Jens-Peter Ellermann.

‘The potential of the NanoFlowcell is much greater, especially in terms of domestic energy supplies as well as in maritime, rail and aviation technology.’

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Satirical Depictions of Our Technology-Obsessed Culture

Just in case you all aren’t burned out on the satirical art (we’ve been posting quite a bit lately), I have another artist to showcase. Jean Jullien is a French-born artist who depicts our narcissistic obsessions with technology — one to which I am not particularly immune.

The Art:

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See more artwork at Ignant.

The Film:


A Little Film About… Jean Jullien from Handsome Frank on Vimeo.

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