Not-So-Magic Nano


In a world first, German authorities have recalled from sale two ‘bathroom cleansing’ aerosol sprays containing nanoparticles, intensifying scientific and public debate over the possible human health impacts of untested nanomaterials, which are increasingly used in industrial and domestic products.

The recall followed reports of ‘severe respiratory problems’ for 77 people, six of whom were reportedly hospitalised with pulmonary oedema excessive water in the lungs at the end of March (link here). All those affected had used ‘Magic Nano’ purportedly, a product of nanotechnology distributed by German company Kleinmann GmbH . The sprays were designed to be used on glass and ceramic surfaces to make them dirt and water-repellant.

Nanotechnology is an emerging field that exploits the unique behaviour of metals and chemicals when they are reduced to the ‘nanoscale’ usually 1 to 100 nanometres (nm), with a nanometre equal to a billionth of a metre.

Thanks to Emo.

Engineered nanoparticles are intentionally designed to utilise the advantages yielded by their specific size, shape and surface properties. However, their long-term health impacts are relatively unknown. N anoparticles of 70nm can lodge in a lung, a 50nm particle can enter a cell and a 30nm particle can pass over the blood/brain barrier.

No specific information has been released about the nanochemical used in the Kleinmann GmbH aerosol spray, and the company and its supplier have been unable to ascertain whether the illness it caused was the result of inhaling the new particles, or of interaction of the particles with the aerosol propellant. The company’s international sales manager, Bernd Zimmerman, says it is more than likely nanotechnology is not at fault .

However, Executive Director of the Canadian action group Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) says, ‘we don’t really know if nanotechnology is to blame for the nanotech product recall. The important point is that no government anywhere regulates nanoscale materials if the same chemical substance has been vetted at the macro-scale.’

The conclusions of those working in nanotoxicology have repeatedly been that many unanswered questions remain and further research is needed. There is currently no established regulatory system to deal with any nanotechnological product, nor is labeling of products required.

Despite a lack of new regulations, nanotechnology has already been incorporated into hundreds of consumer products on the US market the ETC Group puts the number at close to 700. The technology can be found in products such as anti-wrinkle creams, sunscreens, chocolate diet shakes, tooth powder, pesticides, cooking oil and vitamin supplements.

Although Australia may not currently market nanotechnology-based aerosols like those distributed by Kleinmann GmbH, according to the Australian Government’s domestic agency for foreign investment, Invest Australia, there are currently at least 50 ‘nano-focussed’ Australian companies, some of which are working in health-related areas.

Although Australia’s manufacturing industry for engineered nanoparticles is extremely small, a 2 005 Senate Community Affairs Committee Inquiry into workplace exposure to toxic dust considered the potential of nanoparticles to result in workplace related harm . According to the ETC Group’s, Hope Shand, ‘ it is unethical to have workers conducting research or handling nanoparticles in the absence of agreed-upon safety standards and regulatory oversight.’

However, t he recall of nanotechnology-based products draws the debate squarely into the realm of consumer concern.

T here is a danger that the latest health-related concerns will lead to unhelpful and unsubstantiated generalisations about nanotechnology. However, given the backlash to genetically engineered and modified foods in the European Union, a case is building for independent, precautionary research into the dangers of ultra-fine particles and ways to enable increased public participation in policy development on radical new technologies and their products.

Spokesperson for Australia’s Friends of the Earth, Dr Rye Senjen, says, ‘ in Australia there is currently no established regulatory system to deal with any nanotechnological product, nor is labeling of products required.’

A National Nanotechnology Strategy Taskforce call for public submissions opened on April 1 this year, and will close at the beginning of May. The final draft of the strategy is due for release in June 2006. Inexplicably, the taskforce does not appear to welcome an open partnership with concerned constituents, and is primarily focused on bringing new products to market.

This attitude so early in development processes is the recipe for a loss of public confidence and resistance to the transition from laboratory to market.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.