By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 6, 2006
Government officials in Germany have reported what appears to be the first health-related recall of a nanotechnology product, raising a potential public perception problem for the rapidly growing but still poorly understood field of science.
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.
Symptoms generally cleared up within 18 hours, though some had persistent breathing problems for days.
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.
Studies of health effects have just begun in several countries, and regulatory agencies are still formulating their stances, but hundreds of nano products are already for sale.
It was unclear yesterday what kind of nanomaterial is in the spray, or even whether the particles were to blame. Every case has involved the aerosol spray-can form (the product was previously available in a pump bottle, without complications). And the propellant used in the aerosol has long been used uneventfully in hair sprays and other products.
David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said he has not seen the German product on the U.S. market. But a recently released survey of nano consumer products, compiled by his organization, lists other aerosolized nano products, including a foot spray.
"This really raises a bunch of interesting questions, since the public has been told that nano will cure diseases, not cause them," Rejeski said. "I think this is an important event in the nano world."
Michael Holman, an analyst at Lux Research in New York, which tracks the industry, said the spray may even be one of many products that lack engineered nanoparticles but claim to be "nano" for high-tech appeal. Even so, he said, "this is certainly a cautionary tale from a public perception standpoint."
"We've been encouraging companies and governments to be very careful and get their act together from a regulatory standpoint," he said, "to avoid the kind of problem that this potentially could be."