The New Year was barely four days old when concerns about the use of secret chemicals in everyday products (from household cleaners to flame retardants) sparked a story in the USA that was guaranteed to have Green groups reaching for their blogs and emails.
And in the wake of warnings that the unidentifiable chemicals could pose ‘substantial’ health and environmental risks, the chances are they will have plenty of support.
Just four days later it was Britain’s turn, with a newspaper report that the country was on the brink of a massive expansion in foods containing controversial nanoparticles.
Three hundred of the particles would fit in a pinhead, but have a large surface area on which key chemical reactions can take place. They are smaller than red blood cells and researchers say they may be used to improve the shelf-life of some products, or reduce the sugar and fat content of foods.
Already plastic beer bottles in the US have reportedly been lined with ‘nanoclay’ to stop the brew from going flat.
But a House of Lords science and technology committee is not happy about the possibility of consumers being kept uninformed when nanotechnology modified food is expected to hit UK retail outlets within five years.
And it has accused the food industry of being unnecessarily secretive about future new products.
Although the committee admits there is no evidence that the nanoparticles are harmful, it says there are large gaps in current knowledge.
It has clashed with the country’s Food Standards Agency, which doesn’t favour declaring the use of nanoparticles in food labels because they are ‘cluttered enough already’.
A similar problem has been revealed in the USA where almost 20 percent of 84,000 chemicals in commercial use are protected from labelling disclosures under trade secrecy provisions.
The chemicals are so secret that when a Colorado nurse fell seriously ill after treating the victim of a chemical spill at a gas-drilling site, hospital staff were unable to identify all of its ingredients.
The manufacturers of the chemical provided safety information, but refused to name key ingredients, a spokesman explaining later that because of the product’s confidential status the company had made public all the information necessary under its legal obligations.
Roughly 17,000 chemicals remain secret to all but a reported ‘handful’ of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials, who are legally bound to withhold that information from anyone else, including Federal officers and state health and environmental regulators.
Not all of these secret chemicals are harmful. But in mandatory reports to government, manufacturers have admitted that many others pose a threat to public health and the environment.
Heightening public concerns, 151 of the secret chemicals are made up in amounts totalling more than one million tons a year. And, according to the EPA, 10 are used in children’s products.
The secrecy policy was drawn up 33 years ago to help prevent trade secrets from being stolen by competitors. Since then it has grown to the extent that secrecy is now being claimed for a mushrooming number of chemicals, and it even extends to concealing the identities and addresses of some manufacturers.
As a result: consumers are being exposed to threats from a cocktail of toxic chemicals they know nothing about, while the regulators who are supposed to protect them are finding it impossible to exercise any control over dangers they are unable to identify.
But the secret chemicals and the possibility of secret nanoparticled food are problems for the USA and Britain. Why should that worry us?
Because some of the companies involved in this culture of secrecy undoubtedly operate directly or indirectly in Australia. And we, too, have trade secrecy laws designed to protect successful companies from illegal tactics by their commercial opposition.
On the credit side we also have laws designed to protect consumers.
But for every regulatory authority there are critics. Food Standards Australia New Zealand, for instance, is a statutory authority charged with the task of protecting the health and safety of Australians and New Zealanders. But the Australian Greens have previously expressed doubts about its ability to do that.
They have pointed out that the authority’s labelling standards only require a declaration of the presence of genetically engineered (GM) materials in a product such as corn, and highly refined sugars and oils derived from GM plants were not labelled – even though they may retain an allergic or reactive impact.
And they have described as appalling the Food Standard authority’s failure to instigate a full labelling system such as that of the European Union.
In the past they have also criticised the authority for approving a genetically engineered corn for human and animal consumption, despite it having attracted safety concerns in Europe.
The authority was accused of accepting a Monsanto study based on feeding a genetically engineered raw corn to rats and chickens, when some scientists had warned that cooking the corn would produce harmful compounds that could cause cancer, diabetes and other health risks.
Nanoparticles, on the other hand, are not the same as GM. The more exotic varieties promise medical breakthroughs in a number of fields including the detection of Alzheimer’s disease, or a radical new treatment for cancer through the development of nanoparticles that heat up and kill the cancer cells.
Silver nanoparticles are already used in such products as sunscreens, anti-odour treatments, and filters.
But an isolated laboratory study in which zebra fish embryos were exposed to silver nanoparticles found some of the fish died and others developed dramatic mutations.
It’s only one study. But in the futuristic world of nanotechnology that result can be the sum of all fears.
Story courtesy of Editorial Fassifern Guardian 13.1.2010 Kind Permission of Wendy Creighton Editor/Author