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Nanotech Gone Awry? 173

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the always-takes-a-few-problems-to-get-a-closer-look dept.
westcoaster004 writes "Chemical and Engineering News is reporting what appears to be 'the first recall of a nanotechnology-based product' due to health risks associated with it. The recall of 'Magic Nano' spray, which is for use on glass and ceramic surfaces to make them repel dirt and water, comes after at least 77 people in Germany contacted regional poison control centers after experiencing illness after using the product. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has also issued a warning." Relatedly dolphin558 writes "There is an interesting story in the Washington Post on the unknown dangers facing employees of nanotechnology firms. The jury is still out on whether traditional HAZMAT safeguards are suitable when handling nanomaterials, many of which can be harmful. Research into potential workplace hazards is beginning to ramp up as the industry and government become more aware of this issue."
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Nanotech Gone Awry?

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  • Nanotech? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by shadowcode (852856) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @07:45AM (#15094437) Journal
    What I wonder is, how much of this product is actually related to nanotech? Isn't it just some fancy spray with 'nano' slapped on the label?
    • Re:Nanotech? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by aussie_a (778472) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @08:19AM (#15094474) Journal
      I always think of nanotechnology as dealing with self-replicating machines that are at the atomic scale. But I suppose any "spray" can technically be classed as nanotechnology (if you define it as "technology at the atomic scale").

      Aaah, definition games. Fun.
      • Re:Nanotech? (Score:2, Informative)

        by Columcille (88542)
        I always think of nanotechnology as dealing with self-replicating machines that are at the atomic scale.

        You've watched too much StarGate. :)
        From Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]:
        Nanotechnology is any technology which exploits phenomena and structures that can only occur at the nanometer scale, which is the scale of several atoms and small molecules.
        • "Nanotechnology" as re-coined* by Eric Drexler did originally mean self replicating systems of machines with atomically precise parts. Once this innovative idea made nanotechnology known to the public, the term was hijacked for funding purposes by chemists and people working with thin films, fine powders and droplets. Since the term had gotten so debased, Drexler started calling his kind of nanotech "molecular nanotechnology".

          *"Nanotechnology" had been used at least once before Drexler, but the term was not
      • That just reminded me that one of the (older?) terms for perfume-spray bottles is "atomizer" :-)

    • Re:Nanotech? (Score:5, Informative)

      by jcorno (889560) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @08:31AM (#15094488)
      According to one of the five linked articles, it contains silicon and silica nanoparticles. The same article mentions that the problem is only in the aerosol version of the product, not the spray pump. It could just be the propellant causing the problem, but that seems pretty unlikely. I don't think they'd have to resort to using an unorthodox propellant if you can use the stuff in a spray pump.
      • Re:Nanotech? (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Maset (190867)
        Have they never heard of silicosis?
      • My guess, and it's just a pure guess, is that, as the nano particles are suspended in water and ethanol, the aerosal makes a fine mist of liquid micro particles containing the suspended nano particles, which gets into the lungs easier than the macro particles from the spray pump.
    • Re:Nanotech? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ozmanjusri (601766) <(aussie_bob) (at) (hotmail.com)> on Sunday April 09, 2006 @08:35AM (#15094494) Journal
      Isn't it just some fancy spray with 'nano' slapped on the label?

      It's claimed to have nano-sized particles of silica and silicone suspended in ethanol and water. Silicone is known to be a mild dermal irritant, so I'd guess the illness is a result of silicone inhalation.

      The nanotech aspect may be relevant in that the small particle size would allow the spray to bypass the body's protection mechanisms and directly affect the alveoli. That would be consistent with the symptoms described. It's drawing a long bow to call it a nanotech hazard though.

      • I agree with all you say except this: It's drawing a long bow to call it a nanotech hazard though.

        to me it seems a very typical nanotech hazard, since "to bypass the body's protection mechanisms and directly affect " is a pretty common property of nano particles.
        • Re:Nanotech? (Score:4, Interesting)

          by ozmanjusri (601766) <(aussie_bob) (at) (hotmail.com)> on Sunday April 09, 2006 @09:26AM (#15094583) Journal
          "to bypass the body's protection mechanisms and directly affect " is a pretty common property of nano particles.

          Yes, but it is not a function of nano technology. Any respirable particle (one which is small enough to enter the alveoli) will have similar consequences. That includes things like grain dust, silica, asbestos, metal fume from welding - the whole pantheon of existing nano sized, but not nano tech toxins.

          • Re:Nanotech? (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Knuckles (8964)
            Except that the widespread use of "low"-tech nanotech (like the spray in the story) will increase the number of types of those particles tremendously, and will likely come up with new types all the time.
      • Re:Nanotech? (Score:2, Informative)

        by TubeSteak (669689)

        The nanotech aspect may be relevant in that the small particle size would allow the spray to bypass the body's protection mechanisms and directly affect the alveoli. That would be consistent with the symptoms described. It's drawing a long bow to call it a nanotech hazard though.

        You're right that it's about the small particle size and wrong that it's 'a long bow to call it a nanotech hazard'.

        Asbestos (wonderful material) is considered verboten because, from Wikipedia: Most respirable asbestos fibers are inv

        • respirable asbestos fibers are three to twenty METERS in diameter?

          0.01 meters = 1 centimeter, not 10 namometers.

          I'm guessing you were referring to micrometers, but if you had previewed you might have realized your mistake (7-10 orders of magnitude?) in trying to use formatting commands.

          Your point and others about this spray not being nanotech is absolutley correct.

          As for those who dismiss the idea that the problem may be related to the aerosol even though no problems were reported with the pump version, you
        • So, what you're REALLY saying is the the people that get these ailments have a specific model of iPod in their lungs.
      • The nanotech aspect may be relevant in that the small particle size would allow the spray to bypass the body's protection mechanisms and directly affect the alveoli. That would be consistent with the symptoms described. It's drawing a long bow to call it a nanotech hazard though.
        By those sorts of arguments mere chemistry is "nanotechnology." When it's a nanomachine of some sort that has problems....then they get to make the claim about nanotech going awry.
      • "Silicone," eh?
        You need to keep abreast of your spelling!
    • Believe it or not, but this is more nanotech than most of the "nanotech" that you hear/read about. I'm a scientist working in this area, and nanonparticles are not only one of the fundamental building blocks for nano-structured materials but are themselves the attention of scientists, researchers, and engineers working in a variety fields. They're useful for drug delivery, potential gene/protein delivery devices, biomedical imaging, paints, chemical/gas sensors, etc. They're also in all reconstituted ora
      • "Our fancy"

        Using "our" is pretty provincial.

        I'm not defending anyone or anything. All I'm saying is that the definition of "nanotech" is quite varied.

    • > how much of this product is actually related to nanotech?

      Maybe you don't understand what nanotechnology is? It's a broad term that describes physical technology built at the nanometer scale. Particles and materials built from them on these small scales sometimes have useful properties that technology can exploit. The computer side of it is just an application of the small structures.

      This story is about illness due to inhaled particles from a cleaning product. It's not clear to me whether the product ac
    • Adding "Magic" to the front of your product name really does little for your credibility. This is a little reminiscent of another spray [j-walk.com].
    • You mean my iPod isn't nontechnology???? (cries....)
    • How much of nanotechnology is actually nanotechnology? It seems to me that, since small molecules are on a "nano" scale, anything could be claimed to be nanotechnology. Has nanotech ever been anything but a buzzword?
  • by joe 155 (937621) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @07:48AM (#15094443) Journal
    One of the problems with the regulation of nano technology here in the UK is that when a product is deamed to be safe no new procedures have to be gone through in order to use the same product on a nano scale, but the impact which they could have could be completely different. I am a fan of nano technology but I see this case as a good thing, it will encourage greater testing and safety procedures whilst not turning people into anti-nano zealots because (thankfully on many levels) no one seems to have died.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      One of the problems with the regulation of nano technology here in the UK is that when a product is deamed to be safe no new procedures have to be gone through in order to use the same product on a nano scale

      If it's at a completely different scale, manufactured in a different way, and acts in a different way, then it's not the same product, is it?

      PS: it's "deemed", not "deamed".

      • If it's at a completely different scale, manufactured in a different way, and acts in a different way, then it's not the same product, is it?

        Good question - And we don't have the answer to that yet.

        Although an entirely different realm of products, consider CPUs... The earliest ones had features you could resolve under relatively low power magnification. As the individual features got smaller and smaller - Now quite literally nanoscale, literally smaller than you can resolve with traditional optical mi
    • by sjames (1099)

      It's unfortunate that a LOT more thought doesn't go into products that incorporate nanoscale particles. They probably shouldn't be in home use at all at this point. Many perfectly harmless products can become MUCH more harmful in the form of nano-particles. Further, typical masks and respirators aren't much help for particles that small. Certainly the filters used typically in a central heating/air system won't help.

      Nano particles have a way of getting much deeper into a person than conventional aerosols.

  • I have been wondering why it is that we only hear all the cool and jazzy things related to nano-technology but nothing to address the concerns regarding it. What about the 'grey goop' and the studies that showed the effects of nano particles on fish? Frightening to say the least.

    Yet we are all more concerned with getting a 100GB Flash based ipod, cars and clothes that don't ever need to be washed, etc etc.....

    Safey first? Bah, $$$ first...
    • I agree that safety isn't being considered here, but I sometimes wonder if it is possible to ensure complete safety regardless of how much effort one puts into it. Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation [amazon.com] , an exhaustive exploration of the possibilities and risks of nanotechnology, speculates about a grey goo [wikipedia.org] scenario where the exponential growth of out-of-control nanobots overtakes the world.

      "Thus the first replicator assembles a copy in one thousand seconds, the two replicators then build two more in the nex

      • Many here will remember Crichton's "Prey", a book that details a nanotech swarm gone mad, and "infesting" a woman to such a degree that her husband, the protagonist, does not realise at first.

        A critique of this fearmongering...

        "...gray goo would be very difficult to design. It would be far more complex than a car--probably more complex than the Space Shuttle. General Motors recently made headlines by taking only a few months to design a car. It's completely implausible that a failing company could creat

      • by JaredOfEuropa (526365) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @08:12AM (#15094469) Journal
        At the end of ten hours, there are not thirty-six new replicators, but over 68 billion.
        And then their "food" in the petri dish runs out, and the next morning a scientist takes care of the problem with a spray can of "Nano-b-gone". Don't lose any sleep over it... there are plenty of real dangers of nanotech to worry about, such as the one cited in the main article.
      • I'm serious. Sooner or later man will begin experimenting with technology where there is a real danger of unforeseen cascade effects accidentally destroying all life on Earth. If we're lucky the fatal accident will not happen, but I think the *risk* is unavoidable.

        We're not at that technological point yet, but we're only getting closer. At least, we should make sure that if something goes badly humanity will not be completely wiped out.

        • You're young enough to have not grown up Fearing The Bomb, aren't you? Never under your desk in a drill? Never heard the air-raid sirens tested weekly in your city?

          Cascade effects destroying all life on Earth isn't some future worry, my young friend. Some of us grew up with it. You're far, far, safer now while there's only one nulear superpower, and the threat of accidental nuclear oblivion is, for the momemt, gone.

          Meanwhile, the combined restrictions of conservation of energy and mutation make grey goo
          • You're young enough to have not grown up Fearing The Bomb, aren't you? Never under your desk in a drill? Never heard the air-raid sirens tested weekly in your city?
            Maybe he's not, but I am. However, by the time I was old enough to be aware of the problem, the air-raid siren tests weren't being done anymore because we knew that it wouldn't help if a multi-megaton bomb got dropped on downtown.

            Cascade effects destroying all life on Earth isn't some future worry, my young friend. Some of us grew up with it. You
          • I did say "unforeseen" effects "accidentally" destroying all human life. Nuclear weapons work as designed, nothing unforeseen about them. An all-out nuclear confrontation might wipe out humanity (although I have serious doubts about that), but that could hardly be called accidental.

            No, what I'm more worried about is bleeding edge commercial or academic research, as by its own nature it involves manipulation of imperfectly understood principles in a competitive environment where safety is not always the

            • BTW, the big worry during the Cold War *was* accidental destruction. Any time you line up opposing forces and arm them, it's only a matter of time before someone sneezes, some psycotic just starts shooting at random, etc. The system was very very dangerous even if no one ever *intended* to use it destructively. I'm still amazed we made it through unnuked.

              But thus far academic research has proven completely unproblematic. While I'm certainly glad there are safeguards in place in biological testing, if y
        • I agree. We need to get ourselves into space so mankind can survive planetary catastrophe. Fortunately, I've been working on this real kewl antimatter engine and - OOPS!
      • This has long been considered to be an overly drastic and highly unlikely doomsday scenario, fit more for science fiction than scientific speculation.

        Just like 'robots will take over the world,' as you have mentioned, the idea of 'grey goo' is just a form of Ludditism. Obviously you've gotten over the irrational fear that your computer will rise up and take over the world with AI, so it's time to do the same with such antiquated prejudices about newer technologies that you can't understand as easily.
      • Where the hell is the nanotech going to procure the energy and materials to duplicate itself that fast? THAT will definitely limit it.
      • by DRJlaw (946416) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @03:03PM (#15095612)
        Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation , an exhaustive exploration of the possibilities and risks of nanotechnology, speculates about a grey goo scenario where the exponential growth of out-of-control nanobots overtakes the world.
        "Thus the first replicator assembles a copy in one thousand seconds, the two replicators then build two more in the next thousand seconds, the four build another four, and the eight build another eight. At the end of ten hours, there are not thirty-six new replicators, but over 68 billion. In less than a day, they would weigh a ton; in less than two days, they would outweigh the Earth; in another four hours, they would exceed the mass of the Sun and all the planets combined - if the bottle of chemicals hadn't run dry long before."


        We already have nanomachines that replicate themselves every 1000 seconds or less (that's a doubling time of roughly 17 minutes). They're called bacteria. We use them to treat sewage, alter milk into cheese, and produce synthetic insulin feedstock, along with several thousand other uses. Some of these applications have been in existence for most of recorded history. Startlingly, the Earth has not been converted into bacteria.

        The Grey Goo argument is an interesting layman's theory that falls apart if you give it any real thought. You cannot build a self-replicating machine out of simply anything. The machine will rely on critical "nutrients", whether they are nitrogen, phosphorous, or copper, that simply aren't available in large quantities in much of the environment. The machine will also require a readily available energy source, which ultimately means solar power since life does a reasonable job of exhausting chemical based energy sources on the surface of the planet.

        Face it, evolution favors favors fast replication, efficient resource utilization, and wide geographic distribution. In four billion years, using technology that we can just barely duplicate (mostly by scavenging parts from nature), evolution has created -- TADA! -- algae and pseudomonas (for example). The last time I checked, these self replicating micromachines weren't threatening to turn my house into more algae and pseudomonas at any significant rate.

        Grey goo is a nice science fiction story, but frankly it's never going to happen. If you want to fear deadly self-replicating nanomachines bringing an end to civilization, then you need to focus on infectious diseases (mostly viruses) like the rest of the highly educated public.
        • "life does a reasonable job of exhausting chemical based energy sources" - literally. One of the best chemical-based energy sources on this planet is oxygen, all of which is what was originally toxic 'exhaust' excreted by the early phases of life on this planet. Life adapts, and turned this toxin into a great energy-source, especially tied to sunlight.

          The raw materials for our kind of life are pretty simple- Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and power (normally the sun). If (I know, it's a huge if) nanoreplicators
      • A key to safety here is to make sure that the nanomachines require some substance not found in nature to remain active and/or that some common enough substance that IS found abundantly in nature acts as a poison to them. Also, they must NOT be allowed to alter their own design or evolutionary forces will overcome 'problems' like those as well as the 'problem' of having to do useful things rather than just replicate.

  • by suv4x4 (956391) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @07:49AM (#15094448)
    First, the scratches and broken screens on iPod Nano and now this!
  • I'm sure the lawyers of the future would be eager to pay good money for them.
  • Allowing nano scale particulates to be released in the home seems like a foolhardy way to save a bit of time.
    I like the principle of nano tech, especially in embedded applications (like within a ceramic chip casing) but spraying it around just screams of stupidity.

    People should just clean their windows manually, a good cloth can be found here [ubuntu.com].

  • by Zouden (232738) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @08:02AM (#15094463)
    I wonder how long until the word "nanotech" falls out of favour because it becomes associated with dangerous "science gone too far".

    We aren't even nearly at the stage of nanomachines ("grey goop"), yet I imagine the public is beginning to feel that everything with the nano-prefix is dangerous. Soon companies and scientists will start using other words to describe the technology. This is fine with me - I actually think that a lot of "nanotechnology" could be better described with other words (same with AI).
    • So, in other words, given enough bad publicity, "nanotech" ends up suffering the same fate as "nuclear"? Though, it would be interesting to see the nano equivalent of nukulear... "If I am elected president, I vow to stop all development of nay-no-tech technology!"
    • We aren't even nearly at the stage of nanomachines ("grey goop")

      I think you are referring to grey goo [wikipedia.org]. (Which is an end-of-the-world scenario involving self-replicating nanomachines running amok, in case someone here didn't know that already.)

    • Hmm. Maybe Nanotech needs an Asimov. I mean, the word "robot" was invented to refer to technology gone too far, and yet nowadays it's treated as something "pretty neat" and futuristic. We need someone willing to beat the shit out of the Frankenstein Complex.
      • Unfortunately, (at least in the US) Hollywood's view of robots is far more prevalent Asimov's. I work with robotics, and during any of our demos, it usually takes a minute or two before someone mentions either (1) "The Terminator" or (2) Battlebots/RobotWars. Most of our robots play soccer, along with other non-violent activities.

        The only explanation I can think of is the bias from exposure to the "robots want to kill humans" view popular in movies. When one views human athletes, you normally don't ask
    • We haven't gotten a good anti-nanotech movie or a good nanotech scary accident yet. For example, the US nuclear industry got hammered by the movie "The China Syndrome" [wikipedia.org] coming out at the same time that the Three Mile Island [wikipedia.org] accident happened.
    • Quite the opposite. Everybody in science now knows that slapping the meaningless tag 'nano' in front of whatever you're doing will increase your chances of being funded by the lemmings who run the grant agencies. Of course, this applied to everybody since everything under the sun is made of small particles of SOMETHING and so the term is abused like a Hilton. It's really ridiculous. In the future, perhaps we'll have "Diamond Age"-like machines that are truly nanoscale but right now I think it's a bit contri
  • I can't wait until i can get a nano iPod Nano. I wonder if that will be dangerous if inhaled...
  • by XNormal (8617) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @08:47AM (#15094514) Homepage
    Any particulate is potentially harmful to lungs. Even the most benign materials. Our lungs are designed to breathe gas, not solids.

    Nano is just the latest example of that.
  • Borg spam (Score:3, Funny)

    by Ritz_Just_Ritz (883997) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @08:50AM (#15094523)
    I dunno. I look forward to getting my first spam hawking nanites that will migrate through my body and increase the size of my m4nh00d.

  • by TEMMiNK (699173) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @08:54AM (#15094530) Homepage
    WARNING! Use of this product may cause side effects!
    * Inhalation of this product may lead to the reconstitution of internal organs into basic geometric shapes.

    But I mean.. thats ok right? At least they are telling you...
  • by Pigeon451 (958201) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @09:37AM (#15094603)
    We've been using nanotech for years, the media and industry have decided that it's "cool" and hype it. Nanotech takes the crown away from microtechnology. In 20 years, picotech will be the next buzzword. :)
  • It would seem it was only the areosole that caused the re-action, my guess is that when spreyed via an areosole more of the nano-particles endup in the atmosphere in the cloud of atomised solution, where as a hand spray tends to have a larger droplet size and less nano material is left floating.

    Still it makes for an interesting concern.
  • by NixLuver (693391) <stwhite@kcher e t i c . c om> on Sunday April 09, 2006 @10:21AM (#15094693) Homepage Journal
    There is a nanoparticle produced by many modern devices that is deadly to humans. In concentrations as low as 1600ppm, it can cause death in two hours or less, and it's only TWO ATOMS ACROSS! It's called, oddly enough, "CO", and it's colorless, tasteless, and odorless. The FDA should require nano-labels on each nanodangerous nanoparticle! They are putting us at risk every day!

    TFA says that nobody involved knows if the product *actually* contains 'nano technology'... It's chemistry, peeps... I doubt this stuff is assembled with SEMs. Really!

  • by sammyo (166904) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @10:56AM (#15094803) Journal
    Late Adopotors live longer.
  • by craXORjack (726120) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @11:58AM (#15094990)
    Ich sprayen die "Nano Magic" ohnen die stain und zuddenly ze bottel becommen part auf mein handen! Und mein monocle fuzen to meinen eye zocket! Was ist happenung to mir? Und die voices. Where kommen sie frommen? Und vas ist dies "Kollectiv"? Stoppen mit die sprechen voicen! Nein, nein, Ich nicht funf von sieben! Gott in Himmel, ich must kontacten diese authorities schnell...
  • ...simple green goo
  • We just need to persuade journalists that wherever they see "nano", they should simply replace it with "chemical". Okay, that might cause some consternation when reporting on the iPod model, but I say that's a small price to pay for more accurate reporting the other 99.9% of the time. Until controlled-assembly Molecular Nano Technology (MNT) comes along, there's no point distinguishing nano-meter-sized chemicals from, uh, chemicals.
  • by argoff (142580) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @01:55PM (#15095340)
    The truth still is that there are a lot of huge entrenched industries that see nanotech as a competitive threat and are desperate to regulate it before it eats into their revenue stream. Just ignore this, it is just another trumpet horning in the wind. It is just another excuse looking for a problem to regulate. Compaired to the potential benefits that nanotech has to offer, problems like these are like the hairline scratch on a 3 ton statue of gold. The nano age is here to stay like it or not.
  • A related question (though at micron scales rather than nano) - does anyone know how safe those "magic eraser" cleaning sponges are? They are an open-cell melamine foam [wikipedia.org] that gradually breaks down as it is used.

    I don't know the size of the particles that break off and get washed down the drain, but given the hardness of the material it seems that they could be hazardous to anything that ingested them (filter-feeding aquatic organisms, fish's gills, and so on). Does anyone know if there have been studies to s
  • It's surprising this is suddenly receiving attention in the mainstream. Does anyone recall the report about 5 years ago, about how carbon fullerenes (and possibly nanotubes) proved fatal to fish?

    Ah, just googled it, here's one of the many hits:
    http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn4825 [newscientist.com]
  • I recently heard of research showing that nanoparticles (that is, particle of nanoscale size) can penetrate the blood brain barrier among other things. Aparently they can also enter the body trough the skin and lungs and interact with cells in previously unseen ways etc. That mean great posibilties for new medicines etc of course, but it would also sugest a posibility for serious healt hazards...

    http://www.tuc.org.uk/h_and_s/tuc-8350-f0.cfm
    http://www.technologyreview.com/Materials/wtr_1 5 847,318,p1.html

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