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?

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 products.

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 registration.

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 purposes.

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.

The technology
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 at NRDC.

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 pesticide registration.

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 forecast.

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 oversight?

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.

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