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Science’s Tiny, Big Unknown

Times Staff Writer

Magic Nano was billed as a miraculous solution for household drudgery, able to repel dirt and moisture from bathroom surfaces through the wonders of nanotechnology.

Instead, the spray-on ceramic sealant quickly has become an emblem of the growing global fears over incorporating artificial particles tens of thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair into such everyday products as golf balls, sunscreen and clothing.

Three days after Magic Nano went on sale in Europe in March, it was pulled from store shelves because at least 110 customers reported symptoms including racking coughs, chest pain and difficulty breathing.

“When I started to feel dizzy and nauseous, I got scared,” said Carola Sennmann, a 37-year-old hairdresser in the German city of Goettingen, who felt flu-like symptoms within 30 minutes of spraying Magic Nano in her shower.

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When she began to gasp for breath, she was rushed to the emergency room and suffered a sleepless, fevered night before the symptoms subsided. Doctors were baffled. Sennmann, though, had her own diagnosis: “I blame it on nanotechnology.”

Last week, German regulators released tests that showed Magic Nano contained no nanoparticles. The product was designed to deposit an oil- and-water-repellent nano-thin film composed of silicon dioxide, but lab tests have yet to verify that property.

Experts still don’t know what caused the illnesses in a case that highlights the murky definitions and poorly understood risks in one of the fastest-growing segments of science and technology.

“So the speculation begins,” said Andrew Maynard, chief scientist of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “This is the great danger -- you’re going to have a response against nanotech as a whole.”

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Simply understanding what nanotechnology is can be daunting for most people. The scientists and engineers immersed in it face a greater challenge: calculating the immediate and long-term risks of tinkering with the chemical and biological building blocks of matter to construct particles so small they can pass freely through the walls of individual cells.

Nanotechnology involves the manufacture or manipulation of particles or structures that are 1 to 100 nanometers -- billionths of a meter -- in at least one dimension. A human hair is about 100,000 nanometers wide.

Such tiny particles can be made by breaking down larger blocks with ultra-fine grinders, controlled electrical explosions or lasers that blast apart raw materials. Chemical reactions can grow nanosized crystals, and metals can be vaporized to form nanomaterials when cooled.

Nanoparticles take on new chemical, electrical and physical properties that lead to “lighter, stronger, smarter, cheaper, cleaner and more precise” products, nanotechnology pioneer Ralph C. Merkle wrote in a seminal 1997 article.

Future Prospects

Some scientists believe that within a few decades nanotechnology will produce limitless, pollution-free energy and supercomputers the size of a grain of salt. It will transform deserts into lush gardens with cheaply desalinated sea water, they say, and neutralize noxious wastes by disassembling dangerous molecules into safe, reusable components.

“Nanotechnology has the potential to create revolutionary change across multiple, key areas of human endeavor,” according to trade group NanoBusiness Alliance. “To maintain its global economic lead and to keep the U.S. homeland secure, we must win the nanotech race.”

Today’s uses are more mundane.

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The minute specks already are in hundreds of products, such as spill-proof garments, cosmetics that claim to cure cellulite and health foods. Irving, Texas-based RBC Life Sciences Inc. sells a weight-loss chocolate drink that features “NanoClusters” that are 100,000 times smaller than a grain of sand, which it said “carry nutrition into your cells.” Although smaller, the nanoparticles consist of the same substance as sand -- silica.

Carbon nanotubes, far lighter than steel yet 50 times as strong, toughen tennis rackets and may one day be used to build aircraft.

Lux Research Inc. in New York projects a $2.6-trillion global market for nanotechnology-enabled products by 2014, or about 15% of that year’s projected manufacturing output. In 2005, more than $9.6 billion was spent worldwide on nanotech R&D;, about half of that by government and half by the industry.

Yet alterations in the chemistry of everyday life can have unpredictable consequences, experts said. New, engineered nanomaterials have variable sizes, shapes and coatings that affect their properties in so far poorly understood ways, said Nigel Walker, who heads the nanotech safety program of the National Institutes of Health.

Last year, the federal government spent more than $1 billion to jump-start nanotech R&D.; A U.S. Senate hearing May 4 focused on how to encourage more investment in nanotechnology. But only 4% of the money spent on nanotechnology investigates toxicology or environmental safety.

Critics would prefer more safety research. The government does not regulate nanotechnology, meaning it can be included in food or cosmetics without federal oversight. That strikes some scientists as overly lax.

“We are at the beginning of this industrial revolution,” said Dr. Andre Nel, an immunologist at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. “The large majority of nanomaterials will not be toxic, but to get public confidence, it’s important to practice the precautionary principle.”

Atomic energy was at first regarded as a safe source of power “too cheap to meter.” Chlorofluorocarbons were superior coolants until they opened a hole in the Earth’s ozone layer. Pesticides, leaded gas and asbestos were long considered safe until they were revealed as killers.

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Only once did an entire field pause to reflect on its potential for harm. In 1973, biologists decreed a yearlong moratorium on gene-splicing to design safer labs and rules for creating transgenic microorganisms.

Unlike those biologists, “a lot of today’s physical scientists and engineers playing with nanotechnology have no concept of what the human and ecological dangers may be,” said David Rejeski, director of the Woodrow Wilson center’s nanotech project.

Research has shown that the smallest nanoparticles can pass through cell walls and damage DNA. In animals they have moved from the nostrils along the olfactory nerve and across the blood-brain barrier -- the last line of defense against brain damage.

Inhaled nanoparticles can cause lung tumors in rats. Some of the particles are virtually indestructible, much like asbestos fibers that cause lung disease, said Dr. John M. Balbus, who directs nanotech research for New York-based nonprofit watchdog Environmental Defense.

Over the next few years, nanostructures with moving parts will interact with the body and environment in complex ways. In a decade or less, scientists predict, microbots will build themselves atom by atom for benign purposes, such as pest control.

Worst-case scenarios often depict such creations going haywire, proliferating wildly and spreading like dust on the wind -- reducing the environment to “gray goo.” Many experts dismiss such notions as farfetched, but few rule them out.

Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems Inc. and a top computer scientist, urged in 2000 that the world step back from nanotech until humanity had learned to control it.

He wrote in Wired magazine: “Gray goo would surely be a depressing ending to our human adventure on Earth, far worse than mere fire or ice, and one that could stem from a simple laboratory accident. Oops.”

Uses May Have Risks

Today’s nanotechnology seems remote from such grim fears, but its benefits are clear.

One widely available example is enhanced sunscreen. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have long been used to reflect damaging ultraviolet rays. The downside is unsightly white blotches on the noses of beachgoers.

Kristen Shurley, a chiropractic student in Dallas, swears by Sunforgettable, a powder loaded with titanium dioxide nanoparticles, marketed by Colorescience in Dana Point. It works transparently and also seemed to improve her severe acne.

Shurley, 26, wondered about brushing nanopowder on her face daily. “Do [particles] penetrate into the skin and absorb into the blood system and become toxic? I’ve done some research,” she said. “It doesn’t really seem to be the case.”

Several lab tests and years of anecdotal evidence suggest that such products are safe and effective.

Yet sunscreen -- one of the most intensively studied nanoproducts -- also shows the gaps in today’s knowledge. Other lab tests showed nanoscale metal oxides to spark changes within skin cells that could lead to cancer. Scientists are unsure whether particles penetrate diseased or broken skin, such as Shurley’s acne lesions, or whether they enter the body through mucous membranes of the eyes or nose, said Maynard of the Woodrow Wilson center.

Colorescience said it used only particles 50 nanometers or larger to help ensure that they rest on top of skin cells rather than penetrate them. Yet at 50 nanometers they can move into the lymphatic system, which circulates fluids that fight infections.

Particles of 70 nanometers can be inhaled into the deepest recesses of the lungs, where titanium dioxide has proved to be toxic in numerous studies. Inhalation would be a particular concern for aerosols, such as foot sprays and moisturizing facial mists now on the market that use nanotechnology.

The larger issue may be long-term, rather than acute illnesses such as those suspected from Magic Nano.

“It’s unknown whether liberated nanotubes could make it to groundwater after being crushed and disposed at a landfill,” Lux Research analyst Matthew M. Nordan wrote in a recent report.

Several methods to detect or size nanoparticles yield widely divergent results, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Such ambiguities reflect how nanotech defies conventional monitoring that tends to be based on the amount of a substance in the body or environment.

A few large chemical firms, such as DuPont Co. and Germany’s BASF, have approached self-policing vigorously. British company Oxonica made safety a selling point when it coated sunscreen nanoparticles with manganese to reduce their potential to harm skin cells.

The NanoBusiness Alliance supports more government-funded safety studies, partly because few start-ups can afford multimillion-dollar tests.

“As people get ready to bring products to market, manufacturers will do testing to make sure those products are safe,” said Sean Murdoch, the alliance’s director. “No one wants unsafe products.” Companies in the industry have completed many safety tests but withhold results to protect trade secrets, he added.

Colorescience said its supplier guaranteed the safety of titanium dioxide in Sunforgettable but declined to identify the supplier. Nano-Tex, the leading maker of technology to protect garments, publicly disclosed only a summary stating that its products had passed extensive health and environmental tests.

UCLA’s Nel is developing a high-speed test system to predict nanomaterial toxicity. He hopes it will help deter a repeat of the transgenic food debacle of the last decade, in which hidden miscalculations and accidents moved unlabeled, altered fish and crops into the marketplace, prompting consumer boycotts.

“Out of transparency comes trust,” he said. “Out of trust comes acceptance.”

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Piller reported from San Francisco. Times researcher Christian Retzlaff contributed to this report from Berlin.


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