Emily heard Dan rooting around in the fridge. She turned to look, but only his backside protruded.
“Someone threw nanoparticles in the city reservoir. Well, to be precise, carbon nanotubes,” he said.
She thought about aphasia – when you hear but can’t understand the spoken word. She stopped slicing the bread and stared out the kitchen window. A cloud of tiny gnats hovered over the herb box just outside their ground floor apartment. “What are you talking about?”
“You know. Nanoparticles. Those teeny microscopic metal or plastic things. They’re in everything now. Even your sunscreen.”
“That’s helpful.” Living with Dan was causing Emily’s brow furrows to grow ever deeper. “Should I care?”
“Only if you plan on drinking the water,” he responded, handing over a jar of mustard as if it were prey after a successful hunt. “Two graduate students did it as a prank and then told everyone. The nanoparticles they used were fluorescent, so if you swallow one and it comes out in your urine, you’ll be able to find it because it’s bright red. Only thing is, you would need a special microscope to see it.”
“What ever happened to putting Volkswagens on top of buildings?”
“These guys are nerds, not jocks,” Dan explained.
She could see some logic in that. “So, did the kids get arrested?”
“Nah. It was a stupid prank and no harm done.”
When Dan came home the next day, he waved the newspaper and told Emily that a reward was being offered to anyone finding a red nanoparticle in their urine.
“How big a reward?” she asked, her eyes mere slits.
“Five thousand dollars, so I guess they don’t expect to have many winners.”
“Didn’t you say you would need a microscope to find these nano things?” she asked.
“Yeah, but some enterprising university students have offered to do the analysis for a pittance and a cut of the prize money.”
“Not the same students who spiked the reservoir, I hope.”
“That would be a good scam, wouldn’t it? No, these kids are much brighter.” Dan replied. Looking back, Dan and Emily wondered why they hadn’t thought to question who was supplying the prize money, and why. Instead they had talked about the possibility of finding the right kind of fluorescent nanoparticles to add to their urine.
Over ten thousand people gave urine samples for testing, but only three lucky people received prizes. A few months after that, a neighbour was approached by a genetics testing company that offered him five hundred dollars for providing a sample of his blood and filling in a questionnaire. He was told that his name had been picked randomly from the white pages of the phone book. A while later, Dan read an article in the paper reporting that the same company had just identified and patented the gene responsible for a type of heart disease. When asked how they had been able to make this discovery from only twenty blood samples, the company admitted to performing preliminary tests to identify key individuals likely to be disease carriers.
“I bet I know what they used for their preliminary tests.” Dan said.
“Our urine samples, of course,” Emily replied, feeling proud of her deduction. “And they didn’t pay five hundred dollars for those samples either. We gave them up for free.”
“Ah, but we had a chance for a big reward. The company had to fork over fifteen thousand dollars for prizes and a few more thousand for the critical blood samples. But now, would you believe it, some drug company has paid the genetics company a hundred million dollars for the rights to the patent,” Dan said, poking at the business section of the newspaper. Not a bad return on their investment.” Dan pondered a moment. “You don’t suppose those students were paid to put nanoparticles in the reservoir, do you?”
Emily stared at him, considering the implications. “And you thought those kids weren’t bright.”
I wrote this before ocean contamination with microplastics became such a big item in the news, but not before micro beads appeared in bodywash, cosmetics, and toothpaste and ended up polluting our water and damaging sea life. Efforts are now being made to remove them from the market.