Week of 5/17/09

Dear EarthTalk: What is “nanotechnology?” I"ve heard that nanoparticles are already in consumer products, yet we haven’t really studied their potential health impacts.

—Dan Zeff, San Francisco, CA

Nanotechnology 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.

Global 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.

What 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.

Some 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

While 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.

Despite 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.

"While 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 the other."

Europe"s 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.

Taken 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.

CONTACTS: EU"s REACH Law; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Nanotechnology Page.

Dear EarthTalk: How is the fur industry doing these days? Has it been impacted by activism from PETA and similar groups?

—Clara Andrews, Edmonds, WA

Some 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.

According to 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 America.

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.

Activists are 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.

CONTACTS: PETA; The Institute for the Future (IFTF).

EarthTalk is now a book! Details and order information at: emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.