Much of the past decade has been spent worrying about the potential toxicity of nanomaterials. We have had numerous government-funded projects, scores of publications by environmental groups, intense lobbying demanding the labelling of nanomaterials, and even a law suit. But while the developed world agonises over the use of nanomaterials, much of the rest of the world is simply getting on with using them.
As I’ve travelled the world over the last year I’ve seen numerous applications of nanomaterials that would allow them to come into direct contact with the environment – whether through ingestion or release into watercourses – with applications ranging from coatings on fruit to building materials and textiles. In addition there are numerous catalytic applications, such as removing ethylene in fruit storage facilities in order to prevent ripening. Nobody I spoke to had any idea of what would happen to these materials over the course of their lifetime, and probably didn’t much care either. Many of these applications would and could never be used in Europe or the US, but in other parts of the world where economic need takes precedence over human or environmental issues, they are being increasingly applied.
So while much of the ire of environmental groups has been directed at the potential use of nanomaterials by large corporations, Kraft, L’Oreal and the like, their use by small companies in the developing world has gone largely unnoticed. And the use of nanomaterials is virtually undetectable, the technologies to screen large amounts of fruit and vegetables for traces of nanomaterials doesn’t exist.
The real threat to the environment doesn’t come from “greedy multinationals trying to ram untested materials with unknown effects” down people’s throats, but from small companies from Africa to China trying to make an extra shilling, rupee or yuan.