Industry should take lead with media when an event like a recall occurs
By now we should have learned some key facts about a Magic Nano consumer recall in Germany. In early April, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Berlin announced that at least 77 people had reported respiratory problems after using the cleaning product. Whether Magic Nano actually contained nanoparticles or not, our community can learn lessons from early coverage of the story.
1. Hype will precede the facts. In the case of Magic Nano, stories on the risks of nanotechnology and demands for research moratoriums were pronounced and given press well before it was known what caused the respiratory illnesses.
2. As we all know, the press and other publicly available information services don’t always get it right. It has been amazing to watch the amount of misinformation that gets disseminated and passed on from one report to the next. It’s like a game of telephone: The tale coming out at the end has little resemblance to the original message.
Did 77 or 79 people become sick? Did they all have “severe respiratory problems” or just “breathing problems and coughing”? How many were hospitalized and for how long?
As a source for some reporting to the government, I’d like to clarify one of the mistruths that seemed to have started with the release of the Wilson Center’s nano product list. In a products report that Small Times assembled, which in no way was meant to be a comprehensive list, we identified about 80 consumer products that could be classified as nano-based. Unfortunately I keep seeing in print that the government was estimating there were only 80 nano consumer products on the market. The change in the message from “at least” to “only” implies that the government was asleep at the wheel.
3. Authoritative industry voices are being drowned by the easy-to-reach associations and groups that have clear agendas in getting their names in print. I loved Tim Harper’s blog comments on April 8 and 9 (www.cientifica.com/blog/mt/), but his fiery responses to Washington Post articles on Magic Nano and nano worker safety didn’t make the popular press. I could find no responses from nano business alliances in Europe, the United States or Canada, even several weeks after the story hit the press.
The truth is that reporters work on deadlines. They need to be able to quickly reach an authority and get a quote. This community must make a concerted effort to make experts available and known to the national press.
4. There are many responsible journalists who will do their fact checking and get the whole story. The lack of immediate pickup of the Post article was perhaps a sign that the story was seen as more hype than substance. Unfortunately, good reporters also work on tight schedules. Someone needs to take responsibility for quickly assembling a credible industry response, putting out statements
eleases as the stories progress, and helping to guide the direction of the message.
Speaking of messages, I can’t be the only one frustrated when the term “nanoparticles” is used generically in the mainstream media. You would think that all nanoparticles are a homogeneous bunch that are either all good or all bad. Of course, some nanoparticles are going to be toxic and some are going to be benign. What’s the element mix and what is the molecular structure? Is the nanoparticle locked in a clad-tight battery casing or is it slathered directly on your body as sunscreen?
For the time being, the public trusts the products on the market. When was the last time you saw a store clerk asked about the safety of a night cream? That lack of concern is understandable. We are desensitized. There are a lot of scary looking ingredients in personal care products and cleaning solutions, whether they have nano in them or not.
Could there be a public backlash against nano? Sure. But it is hard to rally against something that is so difficult to define. Would you protest against just manmade carbon nanotubes or include nanotubes found in nature through fire remnants? Should you prevent research on nanoshell cancer treatments or stop the mills in India from producing nanocoated fabrics? Would a “throw away your nano-enabled cell phone” campaign go very far?
5. This leads me to my last point. Few people would argue against trying to educate the public on nanotechnology, but the consortium needed to make an impact does not exist yet. Consider what the dairy industry achieved with the “Got Milk” campaign. Of course, the dairy farmers and producers focused on one core product/ingredient, not thousands. However, if the vertical industry associations, Fortune 100 technology leaders and public policy groups could team up on educating the public on the benefits of nanotechnology, it would help put the risks - of which there are many - in perspective.
Patti Glaza is vice president and publisher at Small Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.