Environmental Protection

Groups Petition EPA for Action on Nano-silver

The International Center for Technology Assessment (CTA) and a coalition of consumer, health, and environmental groups on May 1 filed a legal petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, demanding the agency use its pesticide regulation authority to stop the sale of numerous consumer products using nano-sized versions of silver.

Increasingly, manufacturers are infusing consumer products with nanoparticle silver ("nano-silver") for its enhanced "germ killing" abilities. Nano-silver is now the most common commercialized nanomaterial. CTA found more than 260 nano-silver products on the market, ranging from household appliances and cleaners to clothing, cutlery, and children's toys to personal care products and coated electronics.

"These nano-silver products now being illegally sold are pesticides," said George Kimbrell, CTA nanotech staff attorney. "Nano-silver is leeching into the environment, where it will have toxic effects on fish, other aquatic species, and beneficial microorganisms. EPA must stop avoiding this problem and use its legal authority to fulfill its statutory duties."

Recent scientific studies have shown that nano-silver is much more toxic and can cause damage in new ways. Exposures are occurring during use and disposal. A 2008 study showed that washing nano-silver socks releases substantial amounts of the nano-silver into the laundry discharge water, which will ultimately reach natural waterways and potentially poison fish and other aquatic organisms. Another 2008 study found that releases of nano-silver can destroy benign bacteria used in wastewater treatment.

The legal petition demands that EPA regulate nano-silver as a unique pesticide that can cause new and serious impacts on the environment. The hundred-page petition calls on EPA to:

• regulate nanotechnology products as new pesticides;
• require labeling of all products;
• assess health and safety data before permitting marketing;
• analyze the potential human health effects, particularly on children; and
• analyze the potential environmental impacts on ecosystems and endangered species.

Many of the products in the petition's appendix are meant for children (baby bottles, toys, stuffed animals, and clothing) or otherwise create high human exposures (cutlery, food containers, paints, bedding, and personal care products) despite very little study of nano-silver's potential human health impacts. Studies have questioned whether traditional assumptions about silver's safety are sufficient in light of the unique properties of nanoscale materials.

Concerns over nano-silver were first raised by national wastewater utilities in early 2006. One then-new product, Samsung's SilverCare™ Washer, releases silver ions into the waste stream with every load of laundry. In response, according to November 2006 media reports, EPA said that it would regulate nano-silver products as pesticides. However, one year later EPA published a guidance covering only the Samsung washer and allowing it to remain on the market.

Joining the CTA petition are the Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, ETC Group, Center for Environmental Health, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Clean Production Action, Food and Water Watch, the Loka Institute, the Center for Study of Responsive Law, and Consumers Union.

CTA is a non-profit, non-partisan organization committed to providing the public with full assessments and analyses of technological impacts on society.

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