EarthTalk: What is "nanotechnology?"
I’ve heard that nanoparticles are already in consumer
products, yet we haven't really studied their potential
-- Dan Zeff, San Francisco, CA
600 consumer products on store shelves today -- including
some lipsticks, as well as sunscreens and even food
products -- contain nanoparticles, minuscule objects
that can be as tiny as 1/10,000 the thickness of human
hair. The industry is growing in leaps and bounds,
though little is yet known about what health or environmental
problems the technology may bring.
© Getty Images
makes use of minuscule objects—whose width can be
10,000 times narrower than a human hair—known as nanoparticles.
Upwards of 600 products on store shelves today contain them,
including transparent sunscreen, lipsticks, anti-aging creams
and even food products.
nanotechnology sales have grown substantially in recent
years, to $50 billion in 2007, according to Lux Research,
author of the annual Nanotech Report. And the final tally
isn’t in yet, but analysts had predicted 2008 sales
to be $150 billion. The National Science Foundation says
the industry could be worth $1 trillion by 2015, when it
would employ two million workers directly.
makes nanoparticles so useful is their tiny size, which
allows for manipulation of color, solubility, strength,
magnetic behavior and electrical conductivity. Nanoparticles
do exist in nature, and they’re also created inadvertently
through some industrial processes. What’s new—and
potentially hazardous—is the widespread engineering
of these particles for commercial purposes.
there is no conclusive evidence that nanomaterials are either
unsafe or not, health advocates worry that we’re already
putting them on our bodies and ingesting them as if they’d
been thoroughly tested and proven safe. Animal studies,
including one with rats at the University of Rochester,
have shown that some nanoparticles can cross the blood-brain
barrier, which protects the brain from toxins in the bloodstream.
And inhaled nanoparticles have also harmed the lungs of
animal test subjects.
these and other studies, nanomaterials are virtually unregulated
in the U.S. And of $1.3 billion budgeted for research in
2006, only $38 million went to examining risks to health
and to the environment.
the benefits of nanotechnology are widely publicized, the
discussion of the potential effects of their widespread
use in consumer and industrial products is just beginning
to emerge,” reports the Journal of Nanobiotechnology.
“Both pioneers of nanotechnology and its opponents
are finding it extremely hard to argue their case as there
is limited information available to support one side or
regulators are far more wary about nanotechnology than their
American counterparts. Britain’s Royal Society recommended
in 2004 that nanoparticles be viewed as brand new substances,
and the European Commission is examining them on a case-by-case
basis. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is loosely
charged with regulating nanotechnology here, but has barely
dipped its toe in the water.
together, the evidence suggests considerable uncertainty
about the use of nano-ingredients in consumer products.
It’s just not known if they’re safe, which begs
the question: Why have we gone ahead and approved them for
commercial use? Indeed, we may look back at our current
decade and see it, for better or worse, as a time when tiny
things caused big and momentous changes in our lives.
REACH Law; U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency Nanotechnology Page.
EarthTalk: How is the fur industry doing these
days? Has it been impacted by activism from PETA and similar
-- Clara Andrews, Edmonds, WA
85 percent of fur now comes from animals raised on
farms, though opponents say that animals live in terrible
conditions and are killed inhumanely. Mink and foxes
are the two most-farmed wild animals used for furs.
Others include chinchilla, lynx, muskrats and coyotes.
Here a mink and a red fox square off in the wild.
© Getty Images
An accurate source
of up-to-date numbers is hard to come by, but it’s
safe to say that the fur industry has been hurt by the ongoing
and very visible anti-fur campaign—sometimes featuring
top supermodels—by People for the Ethical Treatment
of Animals (PETA) and other animal rights groups.
Whether or not
activist efforts are the cause, the governments of the United
Kingdom and Austria have banned fur farming in their countries
altogether, while The Netherlands has phased out fox and
chinchilla farming. The U.S. has not taken any action against
the industry, but the number of mink farms in the U.S. has
plummeted from 1,027 in 1988 to less than 300 today, according
to Weekly International Fur News.
But while the
fur industry’s sales numbers may have trailed off
through the 1990s, resurgence in the popularity of fur—especially
among newly affluent high-fliers in Russia and China—has
meant that business is booming for those furriers serving
such far-flung markets.
By 2004 the industry
was reporting banner sales—some $11.7 billion worldwide—despite
the slumping post-9/11 economy. “Fur remains big with
international designers and is set to continue as an integral
part of fashion,” International Fur Trade Federation
(IFTF) chairman, Andreas Lenhart, told reporters.
IFTF data, the vast majority of the fur industry's pelts—upwards
of 85 percent—now come from farm-raised animals. (This
does mean, though, that 15 percent are still caught in the
wild, often by trapping methods that are painful as well
as indiscriminate, catching unintended quarry, including
endangered species and domestic pets.) The most farmed such
animal is the mink, followed by the fox. Chinchilla, lynx,
muskrats and coyotes are also farmed for their fur. PETA
reports that 73 percent of the world’s remaining fur
farms are in Europe, while about 12 percent are in North
IFTF argues that
fur farming has environmental benefits, such as providing
good use for 647,000 tons of animal by-products each year
from Europe’s fish and meat industries alone (they
are fed to the captive animals), and generating a lot of
manure, sold as organic fertilizer. Mink farming also provides
fat for soaps and hair products, says IFTF.
Of course, anti-fur
activists don’t see it this way. “The amount
of energy needed to produce a real fur coat from ranch-raised
animal skins is approximately 15 times that needed to produce
a fake fur garment,” says PETA. “Nor is fur
biodegradable, thanks to the chemical treatment applied
to stop the fur from rotting.” PETA adds that these
same chemicals contaminate groundwater near fur farms if
not handled responsibly.
also concerned, of course, about the conditions animals
endure on fur farms. “The animals—who are housed
in unbearably small cages—live with fear, stress,
disease, parasites and other physical and psychological
hardships...” reports PETA. The group adds that the
animals are killed in very inhumane ways—such as by
electrocution, gassing or poisoning—to preserve the
quality of the pelts above all else.
for the Future (IFTF).