Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies > The Tower of Nano Babel or How High-Tech Hucksterism Can Hurt Nanotechnology's Future
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion about the possible risks associated with nanotechnology, but nobody seems to be doing a reality check on the claims companies are making about nanotechnology's benefits. With close to 600 manufacturer-identified, nano-enabled products on the market, the average consumer has to deal with a growing "Tower of Nano Babel." We desperately need a reality check on...nanotech products flooding the global marketplace to ensure that the next generation of nanotechnology applications builds on a solid foundation of consumer confidence.
February 25th, 2008
The Tower of Nano Babel or How High-Tech Hucksterism Can Hurt Nanotechnology's Future
The venerable showman P.T. Barnum once said, "Without promotion something terrible happens...Nothing!" Hype is part of the sell, and new technologies often ride the hype wave to attract both investors and customers. Nanotechnology is no exception. Over the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion about the possible risks associated with nanotechnology, but nobody seems to be doing a reality check on the claims companies are making about nanotechnology's benefits. Companies should be able to document benefits, provide verification of claims, and communicate product information in a way that the average consumer can understand. None of this is happening.
With close to 600 manufacturer-identified, nano-enabled products on the market, the average consumer has to deal with a growing "Tower of Nano Babel." Here are just a few examples from our consumer products inventory (1). Let's start with a nano-engineered fabric that can make pants "…abrasion, wrinkle, and stain resistant, so you can spill your latte, endure a 14-hour flight, scramble through Greek ruins, and head to dinner without changing." Then there is an automotive windshield treatment that is "powered by advanced nanotechnology…performs better and longer - up to 1 full year. While other coatings last only 1-6 months, [and] stands up better to sunlight, salt, moisture and cleaning."
But when it comes to benefits, the prize goes to the dietary supplement and cosmetics companies that have reached stratospheric highs when touting nano's vast curative powers. Here is one example -- a nano silver colloid that does just about everything: "Can be sprayed in the mouth, to ease the symptoms of a sore throat. Can also be sprayed onto skin, to aid the healing of cuts, scratches or acne. Can be used on broken skin." But that's nothing compared to this nano cure-all: "Promotes increased mental focus and concentration. Promotes enhanced mental acuity. Supports healthy tissue regeneration of the heart tissue, thymus and the entire endocrine system. Promotes increased creativity. Promotes very vivid dreams. Promotes improved memory. Supports DNA repair. Promotes increased libido in both males and females."
How about a cosmetic mask where "nano-silver acts as a catalyst by overpowering the digestive enzymes." Not sure how that works. Here is a nano-based cream with a clearer explanation: "Due to their specific composition, nanoparticles have a very high affinity to the horny layer of the skin and are used as transport systems which help the different active agents to penetrate the skin more readily." Huh?
This is not just an issue of hyperbolic semantics. The type of claim made about a product often defines its level of regulation. As soon as companies start making health claims, for instance, their products should receive an extra dose of scrutiny from the FDA. Unfortunately, the FDA doesn't have the time, resources, or legislative authority to do much of any oversight on dietary supplements or cosmetics (2). That leaves consumers in the dark and at the mercy of industry.
At this point in time, there is no labeling guidance for nano products in the United States - no nano equivalent of the "organic" label tied to a certification process with minimal standards. Most manufacturers fail to provide customers with even the most basic information about nanotechnology or how it's used in their products. Confronted with this new technology in products, consumers need clear answers to three basic questions:
- Does the product use or contain nanotechnology?
- What does the nano do (increase strength, bioavailability, etc.)?
- What evidence exists to back these claims?
As nano rolls into the marketplace, consumers (and businesses) need some safeguards against false claims. In 2006, when over a hundred people in Germany were made ill by a bathroom tile cleaner called Magic Nano, it took months for federal oversight bodies to determine that there was nothing "nano" in the product. The recent failure of the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission to remove a similar product, called Stand ‘n Seal, from the market after its use resulted in hundreds of serious lung injuries seems to suggest that it would be entirely possible for serious backlash against nano to occur here if some nano product (real or not) is linked to injury to consumers (3).
Ultimately, what is at stake is consumer trust and, for a growing number of businesses, brand equity. Focus groups and surveys that our Project has conducted constantly indicate that public confidence in nanotechnology would be aided by third-party testing of nanotechnology products. In July 2007, Consumer Reports ran a significant article on nanotechnology and tested a number of nano-based sunscreens (4). This is a good start, but much more work needs to be done.
High-tech hucksterism can hurt nanotechnology, and industry needs to ensure that nano-based products live up to their claims. If industry cannot do this, it is time for third-party laboratories and governments to step in and make sure that they do. The physicist Richard Feynman once observed that, "For a technology to succeed, reality must take precedence over public relations, because nature cannot be fooled." We desperately need a reality check on these hundreds of nanotech products flooding the global marketplace to ensure that the next generation of nanotechnology applications builds on a solid foundation of consumer confidence.
(1) The inventory of manufacturer-identified, nano-based consumer products is available at: http://www.nanotechproject.org/inventories/consumer/ .
(2) According to a recent analysis by the FDA Science Board, the Agency devotes a total of 14 people to regulating the $60 billion-a-year cosmetics and personal care industry. See: Reuters, 2008. "FDA Advisors Declare ‘FDA Science and Mission at Risk'." Available at
(3) Lipton, Eric. "Dangerous Sealer Stayed on Shelves After Recall," The New York Times, October 8, 2007. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/08/washington/08consumer.html?hp .
(4) Consumer Reports tested 19 sunscreens to determine whether or not nanoparticles led to better protection against the sun. See: "Nanotechnology: Untold promise, unknown risk," Consumer Reports, July 2007. Available at http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/health-fitness/nanotechnology-7-07/overview/0707_nano_ov_1.htm .