By Dr. Antonietta M. Gatti & Dr. Stefano Montanari

(Nanodiagnostics S.r.L., Modena, Italy)


Food serves to nourish the body, nothing is more obvious. But, according to Hippocrates, food can also be a remedy for many illnesses and, like any drug (the Greek word “pharmakon” for drug also means poison), can damage those who eat it.


Our more than twenty years of electron-microscopy analyses on food have shown that along with what we eat to give us energy, to make us grow and, ultimately, to make us live, we also introduce a number of harmful substances – including solid, inorganic, non-biodegradable, and non-bioavailable micro- and nanoparticles – capable of inducing local diseases in the digestive system and systemic ones. Those particles can come from particulate pollutants present in the environment, processing residues, or additions made specifically by those who produce the food.


Dangerous Fallout on Our Foods


Micro- and nanoparticles can have different origins; but in most cases they come from high-temperature procedures like those occurring, for instance, in internal-combustion engines, heating systems, waste incinerators, foundries, and cement factories. Their mass is so low that they share many aspects of their behavior with gasses, are airborne, and, eventually, fall on fruit and vegetables destined to become food. Some of them come from food processing such as crushing, grinding, and milling1 or cutting and mincing as happens with some salami, while some are laboratory produced, since, when solid materials are in the size range of nanoparticles, they have very peculiar and, in a way, exciting properties that are more and more frequently used industrially. So, those engineered particles are added to some food to act as a preservative, as an emulsifier, as a thickener, or for simple aesthetic reasons, since, with certain applications, they give the product a more attractive appearance.


Most of the ingested particles are eliminated with the stool, but some of them remain adhering to the digestive walls. As we have shown, these particles can pass through the digestive walls and then creep into the surrounding tissues or even enter the circulatory system through which they can reach any organ or tissue.


Inflammation Triggers


Since these particles are materials that the tissues unwillingly trap without being able to then get rid of, they act for what they are, that is, foreign bodies. This means that they trigger obvious inflammatory reactions and the growth of granulation tissue that isolates them from the rest of the tissue or organ. Since, as we have seen, the trigger (i.e., the particle) is not degradable and therefore remains intact for the whole subject’s life, inflammation is chronic. As has been known for years, such conditions may become the starting point for the growth of a cancerous tissue that can be located virtually anywhere in the body, even far from the digestive tract. Especially in the case of relatively large particles, which can sometimes be as small as ten microns, the ingested particles don’t pass through the intestinal lining but can get trapped in the wall of the stomach or intestine and there deploy their inflammatory potential.


Using an electron-microscopy technique that we first began to devise some twenty years ago and that we have continued to work on during two European research projects and then perfected, we can now analyze food and biopsic (post-mortem samples). We have found the same particles in both the food the patient ate and the diseased tissue, polluting in the former case and being the cause of the disease in the latter. It must be understood that we deal only with solid, inorganic micro- and nanoparticles and not with any other harmful substances that may be contained in food and that may (and in most cases do) play a synergistic action.


Foreign Bodies Are the Key


An important aspect of nanopathology (i.e., the discipline that deals with the illnesses induced by inorganic micro- and nanoparticles) is often overlooked and misunderstood. While playing a role, the chemical elements that make up the particle are not as much responsible for the disease as the fact that the particle is a foreign body. In fact, the usual reaction to their presence is the typical one that occurs when a biological tissue meets with something that it does not recognize as “self.” This is why the traditional approach of the toxicologist who only considers the consequences that he knows as a result of the action of certain chemicals is in many cases misleading when one is in the presence of particulate matter.


We came across a great number of samples of particle-polluted food and, in a lesser but meaningful number of instances, of pathologies occasioned by its ingestion. Our first, very particular experience happened about twenty years ago and never again, when we found a cabbage polluted by basaltic particles erupted by Mt. Etna, an Italian volcano, and those particles had penetrated so deep into the plant that they could not be washed away.


An interesting and unexpected case happened when we analyzed the biopsic samples of the peritoneum taken from a lady diagnosed as affected by a mesothelioma. We were particularly surprised when we detected particles made, among other elements, of thorium and uranium. After having questioned for hours the patient, we learned that she was a vegetarian and had a habit of eating several times a week wild radicchio picked up in an uninhabited valley in the hills a few dozen kilometers from her home. So, we visited that place and took some samples of leaves, finding them polluted by the same kind of particles. Not too far uphill, there were three small ceramic industries that used thorium and uranium to color their enamels. In conclusion, the lady had been convinced that she was eating the most healthy and uncontaminated of food and, eventually, died from it.


A few years ago, we were commissioned by a court to deal with the case of a heavy-oil power plant located in a regional park. According to the locals, the plant periodically emitted oil droplets that caused damage to the finish of their cars, their damp laundry, the vegetables used as their food, and, worst of all, their health. We analyzed a few hundred samples and we noticed that the drops of oil collected on several different matrices had in common a particle content consisting of chemical elements that we had detected in the unburned oil. So, the plant managers were found guilty. In the course of our research, we also analyzed the biopsy and autopsy specimens of about forty inhabitants of the place who suffered mainly but not always from forms of cancer. In most cases, the same particles were present in the diseased tissues. Given the relatively coarse size of the oily drops, too large to be inhaled although often too small to be seen without the aid of a microscope, it is reasonable to think that most of the particles ended up in the inhabitants of the area because of their contaminated food.


All of the few cases of ulcerous recto-colitis we observed showed the presence of particles whose size was generally larger than the ones we usually find in other organs. That could reasonably be due to the fact that the digestive tract allows much larger particles to pass than pulmonary alveoli do when particles are inhaled. Those particles found in the gut could be responsible for preventing the tissue there from healing and recovering properly. Of course, we must consider as well the possibility that it is the altered tissue itself that somehow captures the particles.


In a region of Italy where a famous wine is produced, we analyzed a few samples of the grapes grown there, finding them polluted by particles coming from a huge cement factory located very close to the vineyards. Like many similar industrial plants that also burn used tires and petroleum coke (i.e., the final, solid material deriving from oil refining), carbon-rich substances also containing several other substances, condense in the form of solid particles. It is obvious that the wine obtained from those grapes would be contaminated; but, unfortunately, there are no controls over these pollutants and contaminants.


It may be interesting to report that we had a chance to analyze some samples of cow brains affected by spongiform encephalopathy and all of them contained small steel particles. In our opinion, those particles came from polluted feed, particularly oil added to fodder, and were responsible for the peculiar, scarcely controlled movements and attitude of those poor animals.


These Health Risks Must Be Eliminated


After years of analyses on many hundred cases of polluted food and its consequences, our final conclusion is that solid and inorganic particles that have become increasingly present, not only in the environment but also in what should be our nourishment, should be the subject of much greater attention by the regulatory authorities and doctors.  Above all, these contaminants must be removed from what we eat if only for the obvious reason of reducing health risks as much as possible.





  1. Gatti AM, Tossini D, Gambarelli A, Montanari S, & Capitani F, “Investigation of the Presence of Inorganic Micro- and Nanosized Contaminants in Bread and Biscuits by Environmental Scanning Electron Microscopy,” Critical Reviews in Food and Nutrition, BFSN #306600, Vol. 49, p.1-8 (2008).


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