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Nano worries move from sci-fi to real life

U.S. and German regulators are trying to get a better fix on the potential health effects of products that contain nanoscale materials.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Federal regulators said Thursday they want to get a better handle on the burgeoning use of nanotechnology in everyday products, as their German counterparts struggle to understand why nearly 100 people suffered respiratory problems after using a novel cleaning product made with the submicroscopic particles.

The Food and Drug Administration said it plans an October meeting to discuss the new kinds of nanotechnology materials being developed for use in the products it regulates, including drugs, foods, cosmetics and medical devices. FDA-regulated products account for about 25 cents of every dollar spent each year by U.S. consumers.

Nanotechnology involves the manufacture and manipulation of materials at the molecular or atomic level. At that scale, materials are measured in nanometers or billionths of a meter. Nanoscale materials are generally less than 100 nanometers in diameter. A sheet of paper, in comparison, is 100,000 nanometers thick.

The FDA announcement comes as officials with Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment continue to probe 97 cases of intoxication, some of them severe, in people who had used a recently introduced aerosol cleaning product called "Magic Nano."

The product, which is not sold in the United States, has since been withdrawn from sale in Germany. Officials there said they assume inhalation of the aerosol droplets caused the respiratory problems, but that they cannot rule out whether the nanoparticles it contains also contributed.

"These incidents have demonstrated that the introduction of new technologies in consumer products must be coupled with an assessment of the possible risks arising from their use. It is incumbent on science to communicate this message to consumers as well," the institute's president, Andreas Hensel, said in a statement.

The FDA said the October meeting would help alert the agency to any scientific issues about nanotechnology.

"They seem to be more open about finding out what's going on rather than saying they have everything under control," said Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, which was jointly established last year by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The project recently released a catalog of more than 200 products on the market that includes nanotechnology.

Nano materials, because of their special properties, can pose different safety issues than their larger-sized counterparts, the FDA said.