U.K. Organic Standard Bans Nano

Today, the U.K.'s largest organic certifier banned manufactured nanoparticles as ingredients under its organic standard. The Soil Association certification mark will apply to health and beauty products, food, and textiles. In their press release, the Soil Association points out the necessity of taking action because, “Three years ago, scientists advised the Government that the release of nanoparticles should be ‘avoided as far as possible’. Though the Government acknowledged the risks, no action has been taken to impose controls.”

In a parallel effort to get federal regulatory oversight in the U.S., in 2006 the U.S. Organic Consumers Association (OCA) submitted an open letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expressing its “serious” concern at the perceived lack of FDA regulatory oversight for nanomaterials in consumer products, including food and food packaging.

The U.S. OCA letter states that, “Current nano-food products on the market include a canola oil, a chocolate "slim" shake, a nano-bread, and several nano-food additives and supplements used in soft drinks, lemonades, fruit juices, and margarines. Many food packaging products use nano-composites, nano-clays, and nano-coatings.”

Unfortunately, although the U.S. FDA acknowledges the potential health risks of nanomaterials, these efforts have resulted in nothing more than hand-wringing and thoughtful inaction by the FDA.

NRDC submitted a legal and scientific letter to the FDA pushing them to provide a clear guide to industry in determining whether a product poses a new safety question and how the FDA intends to exercise its authority.

Nano-enhanced food, health, and beauty product lines are likely to grow in leaps and bounds, given that the world’s leading Fortune 500 companies are heavily invested in nanotechnologies, including Heinz, Nestle, Hershey, and Kraft.

ETC Group reports that a 2007 survey by 15 governments estimates there are at least 70 nanotech food-related applications already on the market.

The Soil Association nano standard bans man-made nanomaterials whose basic particle size is less than 125nm and whose mean particle size is less than 200nm. The Soil Association notes that their standard “will have implications for some established manufacturing processes that produce nanoparticles incidentally. Until we research these more fully, we will not apply this standard to them.  The standard does apply to engineered nanoparticles.”

For a little more background details on nanomaterials, the Soil Association provides the following summary of nanomaterials, their potential health risks, and their applications in consumer products:

Nanoparticles: Small particles of chemicals where at least one dimension is less than 100 nm. Nanoparticles can be made from a wide range of materials. These include single elements such as iron, silver and carbon; simple molecules such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide (both used in sun creams); through to complex molecules such as pharmaceuticals. A number of different methods are used to make nanoparticles, including high temperature processes, chemical reactions and attrition (milling or grinding).

Nanocapsules: L'Oreal, Johnson & Johnson and Estee Lauder use nanocapsules in some of their products to deliver active ingredients deeper into the skin. They are also called ‘nanosomes’ or nanoscale liposomes. Nanocapsules are small droplets of liquid, often slightly bigger than nanoscale, enclosed in a nano-thick shell. They are essentially a delivery mechanism designed to get an active ingredient to a specific location, releasing their contents only under certain conditions. Currently they are used in cosmetics to deliver active chemicals deeper into the skin and some nutrient supplements for enhanced absorption. 
They are also being developed for use in some foods (such as a low fat mayonnaise where the suspended oil droplets are only made of a thin shell of oil, rather then entire droplets of oil) and pharmaceuticals.

Nanoemulsions: These are suspensions of nanosized droplets of one liquid (such as an oil) in another liquid (such as water). They have an extremely high surface tension, and when in contact with single celled organisms such as bacteria or fungal spores, they rupture the cells, killing the organisms. They are toxic to microbes at levels that are not irritating to the skin.  While this may have a use in medicine, future uses may include consumer products such as detergents and shampoos. The Soil Association's concern is that environmental sterility in domestic situations - such as a depleted bacterial population on the skin or on household surfaces - is not a healthy objective. There is scientific evidence that exposure to normal levels of benign environmental bacteria is important, particularly for children, for the development of a healthy immune system and to avoid the development of allergies and other immune disorders that are of increasing prevalence due to excessive hygiene in many modern households. (New Scientist, 16 April 2005)

Carbon 'bucky balls': These are molecules composed of 60 atoms of carbon, arranged into a football-shaped hollow sphere. The full technical name is Buckminster fullerene molecules.  They are already being used in some very expensive face creams.  For example, the London-based company Zelens uses buckyballs in their day and night cream.  It claims that they scavenge 'free radicals' and thus protect against aging.  But there are disputed reports of toxic effects. ("Nanocosmetics: Buyer Beware.  Is that expensive jar of skin cream on my dresser safe to use?", Technology Review, March/April 2007).

Nanotubes: 'Nanotubes' are tubular structures commonly made of carbon. They are 1 to 2 nm in diameter. At their simplest, nanotubes are a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a cylinder (single-wall carbon nanotubes). Carbon nanotubes have a number of interesting properties. They are very strong (100 times stronger than steel), very light (one sixth the weight of steel) and they have unique electrical properties (10 times more conductive than copper). A wide range of applications are being developed including additives to plastics and other composites (to increase strength and conductivity), flat panel displays and energy storage (batteries and fuel cells). 

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.