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Is Nanotechnology Poisoning Our Food?

By James Donahue

The exciting new field of nanotechnology is not only opening new doors of scientific discovery in a world so small it cannot be seen without the help of high powered microscopes, it may be having a deadly impact on many of the products we buy and especially the food we are eating.

Most people are unaware that newly manufactured nanoparticles are already being used in consumer products like shampoos, gels, hair dyes and other products used on the human body. These products also are being washed down household drains and making their way into wastewater treatment plants that are not equipped to detect or separate the nanoparticles from the liquids passing through the treatment plants and getting into groundwater.

John Priester, environmental scientist at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California in Santa Barbara, lead a research study in 2012 that attempted to determine the impact this altered groundwater is having on world food crops.

The team limited the study to two substances, nano-CeO2, a cerium oxide powder, and nano-ZnO, a zinc oxide material that were found to profoundly alter soil-based crop quality and yield. They concentrated on the impact these substances had on the soybean, one of the most widely used food products in the world.

The team then monitored plant growth and plant health during a controlled test. Priester said he was surprised at the high level of zinc found in the leaves and beans of the plants exposed to the ZnO nanoparticles. It was found that the component metal was taken up and distributed throughout the plant tissues. Also it was found that there occurred a "shutdown of nitrogen fixation in root nodules at high CeO2 concentrations" which caused diminished plant growth and yield.

The study examined the impact the nanoparticles may be having on farm crop production and did not examine the impact these particles might be having on humans who consumed the soybeans in marketed food products. But the research, funded largely by the National Science Foundation and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, is still digging deeper into this disturbing subject.

In a paper published in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team said "these results indicate broader risks to the food supply."

Alan Tessier, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Biology Directorate, said: "These are very significant findings. They highlight the importance of full life-cycle tracking of manufactured nanomaterials in consideration of environmental impacts."

Tessier suggested, however, that it may be possible to engineer nanomaterials "to minimize impacts once they are released into the environment."