The Irony of Nanotechnology's Promise
Consumer nano products are exploding onto the marketplace, but are America and EPA prepared for and aware of this technology's risks?
- By Debbie Bolles
- Dec 03, 2007
Samsung’s silver bullet for making
clothes bacteria-free using innovative
nanotechnology sounded like
a great idea. But the company’s SilverCare
washing machine came
under scrutiny last year when environmental
advocates and the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency pondered the little-known health
risks of the washer’s silver ion particles.
EPA’s solution is to regulate the machines
as a pesticide and make Samsung prove its
product is safe. The agency announced this
decision Sept. 21.
This approach sounds good in theory, even
if it is a bit comical to think of a washing
machine as a bug killer. However, EPA gave
Samsung until March 2008 to submit an application
for pesticide registration. Until then, the
washers already on the market and any other
“machines that generate silver ions or other substances
for pesticidal purposes” may continue
to be sold.
Which means all those millions of silver ion
germ-killers will be happily circulating through
wastewater and adhering to clothing, ending up
who knows where else, causing unknown potential
damage to our environment.
An even scarier thought is to consider the
unknown impact of hundreds of other silver
nanotechnology products on the market that
are not regulated. They include cosmetics, clothing,
countertops, and even bandages. So far,
EPA has only targeted “machines” and continues
to investigate other non-silver nanotechnology
With the Samsung washer, EPA determined
the machine’s microbial pest-killing
properties make it subject to the Federal Insecticide,
Fungicide and Rodenticide Act
(FIFRA), which declares any product with a
substance to “prevent, destroy, repel, or mitigate
pests” is considered a pesticide and therefore
must be registered. EPA originally deemed
the washers “pesticidal devices” not requiring
In its latest notice, EPA said the action was
not intended to regulate nanotechnology and
that it “has not yet received any information
that suggests that this product uses nanotechnology.”
The notice did not name the Samsung
product specifically, only mentioning
its regulation target as “machines that generate
silver ions or other substances” for pesticidal
That’s odd. Maybe EPA regulators haven’t
read numerous articles about the washer on the
Internet or even Samsung’s own marketing
materials boasting of its nano-silver. Or maybe
it’s just another effort to dodge the thorny issue
of nanotechnology regulation, a hornet’s nest
waiting to be unleashed.
Information about the washing machine on
Samsung’s Web site boasts that its SilverCare technology
kills 99.9 percent of tested bacteria.
A press release about the machine’s U.S.
launch in 2006 said metallic silver atoms, electrolytically
stripped of an electron, are injected
into the wash and rinse cycles, “allowing over
100 quadrillion silver ions to penetrate deep into
the fabric to sanitize clothing without the need
for hot water or bleach.”
A grapefruit-sized device alongside the tub
uses electrical currents to “nano-shave two silver
plates the size of large chewing gum sticks,”
according to the release. The resulting positively
charged silver atoms—silver ions (Ag+)—are
injected into the tub during the wash cycle to
remove or kill bacteria.
A page on Samsung’s corporate Web site—
now either removed or unavailable for unknown
reasons—on Aug. 14, 2007 described this
process as using “silver nano particles” that penetrate
and sanitize clothing. The site said the silver
colloid will stick to the fabric, and the positively
loaded ions will break away and react with
other negatively loaded cells. “When they react
with molecules in the air, the ions simply emit.
The whole procedure will last up to 30 days,”
stated Samsung on the site.
Products and chemicals produced through
nanotechnology are basically super-miniaturized
versions that possess unique properties.
BlueMoodGoods, the maker of silver-nano food
containers, says silver nanoparticles “exhibit
enhanced properties when compared with bulk
silver. This allows them to easily interact with
other particles and increases their antibacterial
efficiency. This effect can be so great that one
gram of silver nanoparticles is all that is required
to give antibacterial properties to hundreds of
square yards of our FreshBox container material."
While Samsung’s marketing materials say
silver has been used to prevent and treat diseases
and infections for centuries and that it’s perfectly
safe for humans with “no carcinogenic risks associated
with silver,” some environmental groups
aren’t as convinced that nanosilver is safe.
Safe or suspect?
The Natural Resources Defense Council
(NRDC) said “too little is known about potential
health risks” of nanotechnology, warning in
a Nov. 27, 2006 press release about the explosion
of nanotechnology products getting ahead
of research and regulation.
“Nanoparticles behave unpredictably and
could harm human beings, wildlife, and the
environment,” said Jennifer Sass, a staff scientist
NRDC reported a 70 percent increase from
March 2006 to November 2006 in the number
of consumer products made with nanotechnology,
such as food containers, stain-resistant
clothing, eyeglass coatings that reduce glare,
and durable tennis balls. More than 500 such
products are currently on the market.
The most prevalent nanomaterial in consumer
products is nanosilver, found in 95 such
products as of May 2007. EPA in 2006 said it
would only regulate products marketed as germkilling,
allowing product makers to get their
goods to market without having to worry about
NRDC cited test tube studies that showed
silver nanoparticles are toxic to mammalian liver
cells, stem cells, and brain cells. Bulk silver is
known to be toxic to fish, algae, crustaceans,
some plants, fungi, and bacteria—hence
nanosilver’s undisputed germ-killing properties.
Therefore, some question the damage to water
ecosystems as nanosilver particles make their
way through wastewater streams. Impact to
humans is unknown.
The new face of nano
Remember the fen-phen scare of the 1990s,
when this anti-obesity drug later was linked to
heart valve disease in some users? The unknown
human health risks of nanoparticles, despite
their miraculous and often beneficial properties,
could potentially result in a similar scenario
years from now.
EPA’s delay in research and regulation of
nanomaterials could haunt the agency and cost
nanosilver product manufacturers. More
research needs to be conducted into the health
effects of nanosilver.
The Project on Emerging Technologies, an
initiative of the Woodrow Wilson International
Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable
Trusts estimated that in 2006, nanotechnology
consumer goods added up to a $50
billion market. Products range from cosmetics
to automotive parts to stuffed animal toys. By
2014, an estimated $2.6 trillion in manufactured
goods will use this technology, the organization
Is anyone else out there frightened by
the thoughts of face cream, food containers,
and children’s toys made with nanomaterials
now on the market when we don’t know
the health risks? And what about limited federal
Maybe I am crying wolf, but the rush to
bring new technology to market without proper
research into human health risks could be a
ticking time bomb.
This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.