By Andreas von Bubnoff
Small Times Contributing Editor
April 14, 2006 – “Magic Nano,” a protective glass and bathroom sealant that was recalled March 28 in Germany after causing sometimes severe breathing problems in consumers, may not be much of a nano product after all.
At least the “nano liquid” used in the sealant does not contain nanoparticles, said Ralf Juergens, a scientist at nanopool GmbH, the company that produces the liquid for the product’s distributor, Kleinmann GmbH. He said the liquid is applied as an aerosol from spray cans and generates an oil and water repelling layer of silicon dioxide that’s about 100 nanometers thin, which is why it is called a nano liquid.
It is possible although not likely that the final product contains nanoparticles, Juergens said. Another company, Hago Chemotechnik GmbH, fills the nano liquid in spray cans and adds a propellant and other chemicals, not all of which are currently known, Juergens said. Representatives of Hago and Kleinmann could not be reached for comment.
Juergens’ statement is in contrast with a statement by René Zimmer of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, or BfR, in Berlin last week. Zimmer said it was still unclear as to whether the nano liquid contains nanoparticles, even after an April 7 meeting of experts and industry representatives. The meeting was convened to identify the ingredients in “Magic Nano” and to understand what caused the health problems. In a statement on April 12, the BfR said that, at the meeting, the distributor of the sealant was unable to provide complete information about the ingredients because of incomplete information from its upstream suppliers.
Although nanopool representatives did not attend the April 7 meeting, Juergens said that he had told a BfR official that the nano liquid did not contain nanoparticles. It could not be confirmed whether the official had communicated this fact to Zimmer.
Whatever the case, the exact ingredients of the final “Magic Nano” product are still unknown, leaving it unclear what caused the breathing problems in about one hundred consumers.
Zimmer said the BfR plans to convene experts again next month after all the companies have completed their analyses into what in the product might be the culprit of the health problems. “Once the data are there, we want to convene the manufacturers in May to finally see what was the cause and who was at fault,” he said.
BfR experts said the problems may have to do with the small droplet size of the fluid after it is sprayed in the air as an aerosol. Aerosol droplets are smaller than 10 micrometers, which enables them to be breathed deeply into the lungs.
This could explain why Kleinmann sold the same product for two and a half years in pump bottles without causing any reported breathing problems in consumers, BfR expert Zimmer said. The droplets from a pump bottle are too large to penetrate deeply into the lungs, he said.
“One thing we have definitely learned at the expert meeting was that spray bottles produce much finer droplets than pump bottles,” Zimmer said. He mentioned other cases in Holland, Switzerland and Austria, where products that didn’t contain nanoparticles had caused breathing problems, probably due to the fine droplet size of an aerosol.
Regardless of whether “Magic Nano” contains nanoparticles, the incident has already led to calls for more safety testing and research of nanotech products.
Patrick Lin of the nanoethics group, a non-partisan think tank, called for more funding of research of the health risk of nanotechnology. And ETC Group, a Canadian-based civil society organization that monitors nanotechnology, renewed a call for a moratorium of all nanotech lab research and for “a recall of consumer products containing engineered nanoparticles” until it can be shown that they are safe.
The confusion over whether or not the “Magic Nano” product really is “nano” points to the need to develop standards for terminology so that there is agreement as to what constitutes a nanoparticle, nanofilm, or a “nanofluid,” said Sean Murdock, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, the U.S. trade association of the nanotech industry. “If companies call things nano that are not and then have issues with them it does create a potential problem with perceived risk being associated with nanotech products,” he said.
Scientists are currently working on developing standard terminology to be used to report research results in scientific journals, said Kristen Kulinowski, director of the International Council on Nanotechnology and an executive director at the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University. “But there is nothing yet in the works to ensure that manufacturers of products are adhering to the same sorts of standards with respect to whether they can call the product nano or not,” she said.
What’s more, the incident is a wake-up call for companies about being transparent as to what nanomaterials they are using, said Andrew Maynard of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., in a statement on Thursday. Otherwise, it will be difficult to separate the safe nanoproducts from the potentially harmful ones, said Maynard, who is the science advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.