TCS Daily


Nanoops!

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - June 7, 2006 12:00 AM

Danger, Will Robinson -- toxic nanotechnology! Er, except without the nanotechnology part, as it turns out.

Yet another nanotechnology danger story turns out to be based on media hype and speculative reporting. As I mentioned here a couple of months ago, there were reports that a German product called "Magic Nano" was making its users sick. According to an article in the Washington Post:

At least 77 people reported severe respiratory problems over a one-week period at the end of March -- including six who were hospitalized with pulmonary edema, or fluid in the lungs -- after using a "Magic Nano" bathroom cleansing product, according to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Berlin. ...

The spray is meant to be used on glass and ceramic surfaces to make them dirt- and water-repellant. "The distributors have launched a recall and advised against using the sprays," according to a statement from the institute, which is conducting tests on the product.

Nanotechnology is an emerging field of materials science involving substances smaller than one-ten-thousandth the width of a human hair. The tiny specks have chemical properties that make them potentially useful in engineering and medicine. But some can clog airways or trigger immune responses.

The trouble is, it turns out on more extensive analysis that the "Magic Nano" didn't contain any actual nanoparticles:

Immediately after the occurrence of the first cases, BfR set out obtaining the exact formulation of the products from the manufacturers in order to establish the causes of the incidents. An expert meeting with the companies responsible for manufacturing the sprays at BfR on 23 May 2006 revealed that the products do not, in fact, contain any nano particles. This was also confirmed by chemical analyses commissioned by BfR from two specialist laboratories. Hence, nano particles are not a potential cause of the health problems experienced by users.

So if nanoparticles weren't the problem, what was? It's not clear, but whatever was making these people sick, it wasn't nanotechnology. The only "Magic Nano" was marketing magic, something that's true for a lot of products bearing the "nano" label these days. To its credit, the original article in the Washington Post linked above noted this possibility, but fake nanotechnology abounds in the marketplace.

That's a potential problem for the nanotechnology industry. As I've noted here before, it used to be worried that people would be spooked by tales of futuristic nanotechnology -- "molecular assemblers" that could make anything, or "grey goo" that devours the earth. Now the bad publicity seems to be coming from products in the here-and-now, products that don't really have much to do with actual nanotechnology at all. This suggests that companies that are actually in the nanotechnology business might want to encourage consumer-protection agencies to take action against companies that falsely claim to be using nanotechnology in their products.

More seriously, it's important that the risks of low-tech nanotechnology -- things like nanoparticles in paints and sunscreens -- get more study up front. It would probably also be a good idea for the nanotechnology industry to educate consumers about the difference between sunscreens and stain-resistant pants that use nanomaterials, and true, advanced nanotechnologies that can be expected to cure disease and address energy shortages. If the industry doesn't explain to people what nanotechnology is all about, popular views are likely to be shaped by the bad news that gets reported -- even if it involves products that don't contain nanotechnology at all.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a TCS contributing editor.

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2 Comments

Nano Scare
Dollars to donuts that this emerging technology will soon rival Global Warming as the EnviroWacko's Chicken-Little Crisis du Jour. Look for the old-line liberal news media to aid and abet them in scaring the American public into fearing nanotech just as they did genetic engineering. The goal here is to prevent the development of this technology or, at the very least, regulate it to the point of strangulation.

Perhaps you are casting an unfair slur on the advertising truthfulness
It's been a long time since my high school chemistry class but it seems to me that if this product is a liquid solution it very much contains nanoparticles since virtually all molecules and free atoms in solution are moving independently as "nanoparticles" in the solution.

Additionally, a bucket of plain old H2O is composed of nanoparticles.

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