Category: Opinion

In response to pressure from the advocacy group As You Sow, Dunkin’ Brands has announced that it will be removing allegedly “nano” titanium dioxide from Dunkin’ Donuts’ powdered sugar donuts. As You Sow claims there are safety concerns around the use of the material, while Dunkin’ Brands cites concerns over investor confidence. It’s a move that further confirms the food sector’s conservatism over adopting new technologies in the face of public uncertainty. But how justified is it based on what we know about the safety of nanoparticles? Titanium dioxide (which isn’t the same thing as the metal titanium) is an inert, insoluble material that’s used as a whitener in everything from paper and paint to plastics. It’s the active ingredient in many mineral-based sunscreens. And as a pigment, is also used to make food products look more appealing. Part of the appeal to food producers is that titanium dioxide is a pretty dull chemical. It doesn’t dissolve in water. It isn’t particularly reactive. It isn’t easily absorbed into the body from food. And it doesn’t seem to cause adverse health problems. It just seems to do what manufacturers want it to do – make food look better. It’s what makes the powdered sugar coating on donuts appear so dense and snow white. Titanium dioxide gives it a boost. And you’ve probably been consuming it for years without knowing. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration allows food products to contain up to 1% food-grade titanium dioxide without the need to include it on the ingredient label. Help yourself to a slice of bread, a bar of chocolate, a spoonful of mayonnaise or a donut, and chances are you’ll be eating a small amount of the substance. Why does As You Sow want this substance gone from Dunkin’ Donuts?  

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The World Economic Forum’s 2015 top 10 emerging technologies reflect the tremendous potential of technology innovation. Yet to build a resilient tech-based future, we need new ideas, new research and new tools that will enable us to realize the benefits of technology innovation, while keeping us a safe distance from potentially catastrophic collapse. It’s a tough challenge, and one that will demand unprecedented levels of interdisciplinary investment, collaboration and creativity. Yet the price of not innovating responsibly is one that may just be too large to live with.

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If you catch measles, what are your chances of dying? When I was a kid, measles was one of those things you were expected to catch.  I had it when I was five, and must confess, I don’t remember much about the experience.  I do remember being confined to bed.  And I also remember being told that measles could cause blindness – as a budding reader, this scared me.  But I don’t recall anyone hinting at anything worse.  If my parents were worried, they didn’t show it. And I’d certainly never heard of kids who had died – even in playground rumors. So as the current outbreak of measles in the US continues to spread, I’ve been intrigued by statements that the disease has a mortality rate of somewhere between one and three young children per thousand infected. Of course I know as a public health academic that measles is highly infectious and can cause severe harm – even death.  But there was a dissonance between what I was reading and what I felt was correct. Surely if one out of every few hundred kids died as a result of measles as I was growing up, I’d have got wind of it? The mortality rate of around 1 in 1000 though comes with a sound provenance.  It’s there in black and white on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) web pages: “For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it” A 2004 review in the Journal of Infectious Diseases provides further insight.  Using CDC data on reported measles cases in the US between 1989 and 2000,Orenstein, Perry and Halsey indicated that approximately three children under the age of five died for every thousand that caught measles, and that the overall mortality rate for all ages was also around 3 per thousand people infected – the table below gives the

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Recently the American publication Mother Jones published an article on the dangers of food laced with tiny metal oxide particles. The article, however, is laced with errors and misinformation. The source material for the article came from a report by the environmental organisation Friends of the Earth, an online database of nanotechnology-based consumer products and a peer-reviewed paper published in 2012. However, the analysis of the information is flawed. Tom Philpott, author of the Mother Jones article, claims nanoparticles – defined as particles smaller than 100 nanometres, which is a thousandth of the width of a human hair – are used because they behave differently from other particles. He is worried that scientists still don’t know how dangerous these differences make them. He also claims that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has done nothing to slow down their rapid move into the food supply. Bad journalism The inventory Philpott cites is the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Consumer Products Inventory, which I helped establish in 2006 as a way better understand the increasing number of consumer products that were using engineered nanomaterials. It provides a useful but only qualitative sense of what was being used where, and relies on intermittent web searches and other sources of intelligence. The inventory was never meant to be comprehensive or authoritative. In 2013 the inventory was updated to include further information on products and materials where it was available. As part of this update, products from a peer review paper published the previous year were included – a study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, reported an analysis of nearly 90 food products for the presence of the material titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide has been used widely in foods for decades as a whitener and a base for other colors. It

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Top ten breakthrough technologies The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies today released its annual list of breakthrough technologies. The list highlights 10 trends in technological advancement that could offer innovative solutions to a range of pressing global challenges.  As a member of the council that compiles the list each year, I’m excited to see technologies here that could be truly transformative.  At the same time, realizing the benefits they offer will require a good dose of responsible innovation mixed in with the technologies each trend represents. Emerging trends Some of the trends– computers that can read and interpret brain signals and screen-less displays that project images directly onto a person’s retina, for example, may seem straight out of a science-fiction movie.  Others – like nanostructured carbon composites and grid-scale energy storage – have been evolving for a while.  But each trend  represents breakthroughs that are poised to underpin significant economic, social and environmental impact in the near future. Innovating responsibly That said, in today’s complex and interconnected world, their sustainable development and use also hinges on understanding how they might harm people and the environment, and how people’s perceptions and assumptions might affect their development trajectories.  This is where an increasingly sophisticated understanding of sustainable innovation is needed.  While scientists and engineers are masters at demonstrating what is technologically possible, it is society that ultimately decides which technologies succeed and which do not. Sustainability and technology innovation The World Economic Forum top ten technology trends push us far beyond the realms of what we are used to – this is why they are so exciting and inspiring.  To be sustainable though, the complex engineering they represent must be integrated with an understanding of how to develop and use them safely and effectively. Take for example advances in human

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