THE advent of nanotechnology — the science of manipulating matter at the scale of atoms and molecules — holds significant promise that could virtually revolutionize all types of industries.

The limited understanding, however, and therefore, the lack of policies to regulate this kind of technology pose a huge impact on the economy and potential risks to health and the environment, said Pat Roy Mooney, executive director of Canada-based Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration (ETC Group).

At a briefing last week, Mooney, who authored and co-authored several books on the politics of biotechnology and biodiversity, warned that some of the food and cosmetic products that Filipinos consume may contain nano-scale particles that could be harmful to human health.

According to ETC Group, over 800 products in the country have been processed under nanotechnology.

“These products are in the marketplace now and they are not regulated by the Philippine government or anybody else’s government,” Mooney said. But the lack of regulation is unlike the case of the melamine scandal.

“The basic reality (in nanotechnology) is that governments have never recognized this question of size,” he added.

‘Tiny’ technology

If biotechnology deals with the manipulation of life (bios), nanotechnology speaks solely of scale. A nanometer is equal to one billionth of a meter. One human hair is about 80,000 nanometers thick. Everything at the nano-scale is invisible to the unaided eye and even to all but the most powerful microscopes.

Below 100 nanometers, a material’s properties can change dramatically. “You go out of the area of classical chemistry and come into the field of quantum effects,” Mooney explained. “All of the characteristics of a chemical change below 100 nanometers, as you drop down in size — 100, 75, 50, 25 nanometers, and so on — keep on changing.”

With only a reduction in size and no change in substance, materials can exhibit new properties such as electrical conductivity, elasticity, different color, greater strength, and greater reactivity — characteristics that the very same materials do not exhibit at the micro or macro scales.

For example, aluminum oxide, the material used by dentists in teeth, is perfectly benign, but at the nano-scale — once ‘quantum effects’ kick in — the same substance is explosive and is used by the United States Air Force to set off bombs.

Nanomaterials, which are far lighter and stronger than anything currently used, could revolutionize the way things are made. Mooney said: “(Nanotechnology) cuts across the entire economy. It’s in cars, soap, food, pesticide, drugs, computers, because everything is made up of atoms.”

Download ETC Group’s “A Tiny Primer on Nano-scale Technologies.”

Potential health risks

Specific risks to human health of nanoproducts have yet to be identified. ETC Group’s Mooney, however, noted that out of 26 peer review studies conducted, none of these suggest that nanoparticles are entirely safe. “All of them say that further studies are needed.”

He explained that at around 70 nanometers in size, a nanoparticle can get into the lungs, skin, and cells. Then at 50 nanometers, it can go deeply into the body’s organs. At 30 nanometers, the immune system will not be able to detect a nanoparticle at all. “It’s too small for the immune system, which means that a nanoparticle can pass through the placenta.”

In the Philippines as in other countries, products containing nano-scale ingredients cannot be identified because these are not labelled and require no regulatory oversight.

Products suspected to contain nano-scale ingredients range from canola oil, health supplements, weight loss pills, cosmetic and anti-ageing products to textile, electronic products, and computer and automotive parts.

Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE) executive director Wilhelmina Pelegrina urged the government to impose a moratorium on nanotech research and the commercial distribution of products until laboratory protocols and regulatory regimes are in place to protect workers and consumers, and until these materials are shown to be safe.

The problem, however, said Mooney, is that the technology is so advanced that governments have yet to figure out and understand it.

Meantime, he suggested consumers to check out the website of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which has an inventory of nanotechnology-based consumer products currently on the market. While not comprehensive, the inventory provides a look at over 800 manufacturer-identified nanotechnology-based consumer products currently available.

Economic impact

The concept of commodity or raw materials is also changing with nanotechnology.

Mooney explained that an economy like the Philippines, which exports gold, nickel, and food products, could be affected if the role of raw materials changes in the future. “We don’t know if we will need gold or nickel the same way we had in the past.”

As an example, Mooney said that chalk, a very simple compound, once brought down to the nano-scale, can be 100 times stronger than steel and six times lighter. “In the end, there will be no need to make steel. You can actually use chalk, incredibly cheap at the nano-scale.”

The same thing may also apply in food products wherein requirements for commodities like coffee, tea, cocoa and sugar can be reduced. In nanotechnology, the same taste can be maintained but using much less of the raw material. This could entail the demand for fresh production to drop considerably.

Nanotechnology, ETC Group said, has the potential to topple commodity markets, disrupt trade and the livelihood of the poorest and most vulnerable workers who do not have the economic flexibility to respond to sudden demands for new skills or different raw materials.

“We are not against technology advancement, but the developing economies are ill-prepared,” said Peregrina.

ETC Group and SEARICE, along with other international civil society groups, proposed the creation of a new United Nations body to track, evaluate, and accept or reject new technologies and their products though the International Convention on the Evaluation of New Technologies (ICENT). ICENT is designed to provide an early warning or early listening system capable of monitoring any significant new technology.

3 Responses to How safe is nanotechnology?



October 18th, 2008 at 3:53 pm

Why is Searice interested in stopping nanotech research? Don’t we need research to determine if its safe or not?



December 16th, 2011 at 11:34 am

New technology is good but then again the effects of such technologies should be researched fully if it’s safe to apply. It’s true that the advancement is so fast paced that by the time an analysis has been done,new ones come into play again.


Ramon Alonzo

March 10th, 2015 at 7:18 pm

if technology is conquering our development and research is to slow to see if it safe or not…probably we can use other energy to determine or an input in the study if is safe to all living things to include our environment…paranormal forcast….!!! just an idea

Comment Form