Commercial toothpaste is a waste of time since there are better dentifrices to use. Many people recommend baking soda or salt or just a clean brush. When I’m camping, a drop or two of Dr. ( Bronner’s Magic Peppermint Castile Soap does a great job.

But I confess, we have a tube of Nature’s Gate All-Natural Toothpaste sitting on the bathroom sink. It’s just so easy to grab and use. Add a dip of the brush in baking soda and it’s the best of both worlds: commercial and truly natural. But it seems the Nature’s Gate formula has changed recently and it’s creamier, smoother in texture. Seems to clean and polish better than ever; so much so that I had a flash of suspicion. Is Nature’s Gate putting Bucky Balls in my mouth?

In 1971, I sat agog in the front row at a talk by Buckminster Fuller when he visited Creighton University. Fuller was a hero to the rebellious youth of the era because of his futuristic and holistic view of the universe. Sorta like Bernie Sanders is today or Ron Paul was during the 2008 and 2012 election cycles. Fuller coined the phrase “Spaceship Earth” and invented the geodesic dome. His relevance to nanotechnology is tangential and due to the fact that a molecule of carbon discovered in 1985 is shaped like his geodesic design. That molecule was named fullerene, nicknamed “Bucky Balls”, and led to the further development of nanotechnology.

Tiny Dancer Nanotechnology is the relatively new field of manipulating matter on the level of atoms or molecules. Understandably, that means on a very tiny scale. Nano refers to that size scale. Nanotechnology and nanoscience involve the study of phenomena and materials, and the manipulation of structures, devices and systems that exist at the nanoscale, that is less than 100 nanometers (nm) in size. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. A molecule of sugar is about 1 nm, about as big in relation to an apple as an apple is in relation to the earth. By comparison a human hair is about 80,000 nm thick. By rearranging things on such a tiny scale, science can revise the properties and performance of materials. Things behave differently down in the world of very tiny. And nano particles are so small, they easily squirm past the skin and move right into the body, even penetrating cell walls with ease. Any kind of protective barrier ends up like a screen door in a submarine: useless. Nanoparticles are already in your body. Some of the existing products include cosmetics, sunscreens, powders, anti-bacterial wound dressings — even the battery in your cell phone. And worse, food!

The potential uses for nanoparticles and nanotechnology sound like true science fiction. Cornell researchers have developed nanotech fabrics that can detect biohazards like E. coli or other pathogens. Illinois scientists have built artificial skin from nanotech corn proteins and can deliver medicines into the body through nanotubes. Nanotech biosensors can monitor farm fields for pests or disease. Food producers experiment with rearranging molecules to make foods taste different or feel different in the mouth. Food packaging can be manipulated to detect pathogens or preserve the color of food longer.

There is one example that describes the potential in a consumer-oriented way. Food giant Kraft Industries has worked on a product in the pipeline that uses nanoparticles. They have developed a colorless, tasteless liquid in the lab that consumers will design after purchase. You’ll decide what color and flavor you’d like the drink to be, and what nutrients it will have in it, once you get home. You’ll zap the product in a type of microwave. This will activate nano-capsules, each one about 2,000 times smaller than the width of a hair and containing the necessary nano-chemicals for your choice of drink: green-hued, blackcurrant-flavored with a touch of caffeine and omega-3 oil, perhaps.

Size Matters So why worry about nanoballs? Well, they’re small. So small they fall through skin, through blood, through cell walls. They penetrate. They go where no man has gone before. It turns out that altering the scale of particles alters its safety. All these nano-products involve producing new molecules in the laboratory that have never before existed in nature at that scale and it can radically change the material’s characteristics. When reduced to nanoscales, an innocuous metal such as aluminum, stable at natural size, becomes explosive, for example. The question is, what effect do nanoparticles have on health?

There are already at least 1800 consumer products that contain or use nanotechnology. A report by concerned scientists of the National Research Council states that there are little to no safeguards in place to study the potential toxic effect of those humanly re-engineered molecules. Because the artificial molecules are so tiny, they can easily migrate into the body through respiration, ingestion and even through the skin. Nanoparticles have been shown to cross into the brain after inhalation.

A scrubbing bubble full of trouble. In 2006, a company in Germany released a new household cleaner named “Magic Nano.” It was designed to clean better and easier using manufactured nanoparticles in the aerosol. Three days later it was withdrawn from the market after 97 people were hospitalized with respiratory problems after using the cleaner. No one knows for sure whether it was the nanoparticles or not but certainly they were being inhaled. The incident sent a red flag to government agencies.

Various agencies dealing with nanotechnology are issuing warnings. The National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) has recommended that employers take appropriate precautionary measures for handling new materials, including engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment, to avoid worker exposure to nanoscale materials during the production of these nanomaterials. No such cautionary advice has come out to protect the consumer who is blissfully unaware of nanoparticles emitted from sporting goods, flat screen televisions or food packaging.

Toxicologist Jennifer Sass, a senior health scientist at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) was quoted in a Scientific American article, “There’s definitely an exposure, especially from nanosilver that’s really common in consumer products as well as buckyballs and titanium dioxide in skin creams. Nanomaterials, because of their size, are more bioavailable; and because of their surface area to mass, they are more chemically reactive. How that relates to toxicity needs to be looked at.”

Nanoparticles are showing up in our food supply and we aren’t being told about it. They’re in everything from Kraft Cheese to SoBe drinks to Oreo cookies. The Woodrow Wilson Center and Friends of the Earth has a downloadable PDF with research about nano particles in common foods. They include foods like vegetable oil, teas and candy. Refrigerators and kitchen utensils are favorite uses for antibacterial nanotech. Nutritional supplements are showing up with nanoencapsulated nutrients.

Asbestos was once praised as the ultimate insulating material — until we found the particles caused cancer. The industrial lubricant PCB, the pesticide DDT, plastic bisphenol A were all supposed to be safe. Genetically modified seeds were supposed to eliminate world hunger — until research found that they actually produce less food and deplete the soil.

Maybe nanoparticles are okay and safe but maybe they’re not. They certainly don’t seem natural and we’re putting them in a body that was designed by nature. How nano balls will affect us remains to be seen. We should at least be informed by labeling when they are used.

Note: This just in from Nature’s Gate Customer Service — “We don’t use nano in our toothpastes. No GMOs, no gluten, no corn, no soy and no carrageenan.” I’m smiling.

Be well.

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