The Peninsula (Doha, Qatar)  [Printer-friendly version]
June 10, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Some advocates for nanotechnology are saying
a precautionary approach can inspire public confidence in the people
selling this new technology. They say a precautionary approach will
lead to public acceptance of nano products. In this case, is
precaution a new way to make decisions or is it just a marketing ploy
by nano-hucksters who have already concluded nano products are safe?
Listen to their pitch...]

By Charles Piller

Magic Nano was billed as a miraculous solution for household drudgery,
able to repel dirt and moisture from bathroom surfaces through the
wonders of nanotechnology.

Instead, the spray-on ceramic sealant quickly has become an emblem of
the growing global fears over incorporating artificial particles tens
of thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair into such
everyday products as golf balls, sunscreen and clothing.

Three days after Magic Nano went on sale in Europe in March, it was
pulled from store shelves because at least 110 customers reported
symptoms including racking coughs, chest pain and difficulty

"When I started to feel dizzy and nauseous, I got scared," said
Carola Sennmann, a 37-year-old hairdresser in the German city of
Goettingen, who felt flu-like symptoms within 30 minutes of spraying
Magic Nano in her shower.

When she began to gasp for breath, she was rushed to the emergency
room and suffered a sleepless, fevered night before the symptoms
subsided. Doctors were baffled. Sennmann, though, had her own
diagnosis: "I blame it on nanotechnology."

Last week, German regulators released tests that showed Magic Nano
contained no nanoparticles. The product was designed to deposit an
oil- and-water-repellent nano-thin film composed of silicon dioxide,
but lab tests have yet to verify that property.

Experts still don't know what caused the illnesses in a case that
highlights the murky definitions and poorly understood risks in one of
the fastest-growing segments of science and technology.

"So the speculation begins," said Andrew Maynard, chief scientist of
the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars in Washington. "This is the great
danger -- you're going to have a response against nanotech as a

Simply understanding what nanotechnology is can be daunting for most
people. The scientists and engineers immersed in it face a greater
challenge: calculating the immediate and long-term risks of tinkering
with the chemical and biological building blocks of matter to
construct particles so small they can pass freely through the walls of
individual cells.

Nanotechnology involves the manufacture or manipulation of particles
or structures that are 1 to 100 nanometers -- billionths of a meter --
in at least one dimension. A human hair is about 100,000 nanometers

Such tiny particles can be made by breaking down larger blocks with
ultra-fine grinders, controlled electrical explosions or lasers that
blast apart raw materials. Chemical reactions can grow nanosized
crystals, and metals can be vaporized to form nanomaterials when

Nanoparticles take on new chemical, electrical and physical properties
that lead to "lighter, stronger, smarter, cheaper, cleaner and more
precise" products, nanotechnology pioneer Ralph C Merkle wrote in a
seminal 1997 article.

Some scientists believe that within a few decades nanotechnology will
produce limitless, pollution-free energy and supercomputers the size
of a grain of salt. It will transform deserts into lush gardens with
cheaply desalinated sea water, they say, and neutralise noxious wastes
by disassembling dangerous molecules into safe, reusable components.
"Nanotechnology has the potential to create revolutionary change
across multiple, key areas of human endeavor," according to trade
group NanoBusiness Alliance. "To maintain its global economic lead and
to keep the U.S. homeland secure, we must win the nanotech race."
Today's uses are more mundane.

The minute specks already are in hundreds of products, such as spill-
proof garments, cosmetics that claim to cure cellulite and health
foods. Irving, Texas-based RBC Life Sciences Inc. sells a weight-loss
chocolate drink that features "NanoClusters" that are 100,000 times
smaller than a grain of sand, which it said "carry nutrition into your
cells." Although smaller, the nanoparticles consist of the same
substance as sand -- silica.

Carbon nanotubes, far lighter than steel yet 50 times as strong,
toughen tennis rackets and may one day be used to build aircraft.
Lux Research Inc. in New York projects a $2.6 trillion global market
for nanotechnology-enabled products by 2014. In 2005, more than $9.6bn
was spent worldwide on nanotech R&D, about half of that by government
and half by the industry.

Yet alterations in the chemistry of everyday life can have
unpredictable consequences, experts said. New, engineered
nanomaterials have variable sizes, shapes and coatings that affect
their properties in so far poorly understood ways, said Nigel Walker,
who heads the nanotech safety programme of the National Institutes of

Last year, the federal government spent more than $1bn to jump-start
nanotech R&D. A US Senate hearing May 4 focused on how to encourage
more investment in nanotechnology. But only 4 per cent of the money
spent on nanotechnology investigates toxicology or environmental

Critics would prefer more safety research. The government does not
regulate nanotechnology, meaning it can be included in food or
cosmetics without federal oversight. That strikes some scientists as
overly lax.

"We are at the beginning of this industrial revolution," said Dr.
Andre Nel, an immunologist at the University of California, Los
Angeles' David Geffen School of Medicine. "The large majority of
nanomaterials will not be toxic, but to get public confidence, it's
important to practice the precautionary principle."

Atomic energy was at first regarded as a safe source of power "too
cheap to meter." Chlorofluorocarbons were superior coolants until
they opened a hole in the Earth's ozone layer. Pesticides, leaded gas
and asbestos were long considered safe until they were revealed as

Only once did an entire field pause to reflect on its potential for
harm. In 1973, biologists decreed a yearlong moratorium on gene-
splicing to design safer labs and rules for creating transgenic

Unlike those biologists, "a lot of today's physical scientists and
engineers playing with nanotechnology have no concept of what the
human and ecological dangers may be," said David Rejeski, director of
the Woodrow Wilson center's nanotech project.

Research has shown that the smallest nanoparticles can pass through
cell walls and damage DNA. In animals they have moved from the
nostrils along the olfactory nerve and across the blood-brain barrier
-- the last line of defense against brain damage.

Inhaled nanoparticles can cause lung tumors in rats. Some of the
particles are virtually indestructible, much like asbestos fibers that
cause lung disease, said Dr. John M Balbus, who directs nanotech
research for New York-based nonprofit watchdog Environmental Defence.
Over the next few years, nanostructures with moving parts will
interact with the body and environment in complex ways. In a decade or
less, scientists predict, microbots will build themselves atom by atom
for benign purposes, such as pest control.

Worst-case scenarios often depict such creations going haywire,
proliferating wildly and spreading like dust on the wind -- reducing
the environment to "gray goo." Many experts dismiss such notions as
farfetched, but few rule them out.

Benefits, however, are clear and several lab tests and years of
anecdotal evidence suggest that such products are safe and effective.
But the larger issue may be long-term, rather than acute illnesses
such as those suspected from Magic Nano.

"It's unknown whether liberated nanotubes could make it to groundwater
after being crushed and disposed at a landfill," Lux Research analyst
Matthew M Nordan wrote in a recent report.

Several methods to detect or size nanoparticles yield widely divergent
results, according to the National Institute of Standards and
Technology. Such ambiguities reflect how nanotech defies conventional
monitoring that tends to be based on the amount of a substance in the
body or environment.

UCLA's Nel is developing a high-speed test system to predict
nanomaterial toxicity. He hopes it will help deter a repeat of the
transgenic food debacle of the last decade, in which hidden
miscalculations and accidents moved unlabeled, altered fish and crops
into the marketplace, prompting consumer boycotts.

"Out of transparency comes trust," he said. "Out of trust comes

Copyright 2001 The Peninsula