(Beyond Pesticides, August 28, 2009) Nanotech consumer products have now crossed the millennial threshold. Over 1,000 nanotechnology-enabled products have been made available to consumers around the world, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN). The most recent update to the group’s three-and-a-half-year-old inventory reflects the increasing use of the tiny particles in everything from conventional products like non-stick cookware, to antibacterial clothing and sporting supplies.
Health and fitness items continue to dominate the PEN inventory, representing 60 percent of products listed. More products are based on nanoscale silver””used for its antimicrobial properties””than any other nanomaterial; 259 products (26 percent of the inventory) use silver nanoparticles.
“The use of nanotechnology in consumer products continues to grow rapidly,” says PEN Director David Rejeski. “When we launched the inventory in March 2006 we only had 212 products. If the introduction of new products continues at the present rate, the number of products listed in the inventory will reach close to 1,600 within the next two years. This will provide significant oversight challenges for agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and Consumer Product Safety Commission, which often lack any mechanisms to identify nanotech products before they enter the marketplace.”
The widespread use of nanotechnology, such as the use of silver nanoparticles, can create unique and unpredictable human health and environmental risks. This is because nanoparticles — usually sized between 1 and 100 nanometers (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter)- are so small they become extremely mobile; they are able to enter the lungs, pass through cell membranes, and possibly penetrate the skin. Once inside the body, they seem to have unlimited access to all tissues and organs, including the brain, and likely also the fetal circulation, and may cause cell damage that we don’t yet understand. Studies of ultrafine air pollution have shown that inhalation of nano-sized particles increases the risk of asthma attacks and of death from heart attacks, strokes, and respiratory disease.
While regular silver is known to be toxic to fish, aquatic organisms and microorganisms, recent scientific studies have shown that silver nanoparticles are much more toxic and can cause damage in new ways. A 2008 study showed that washing nano-silver socks released substantial amounts of the nanosilver into the laundry discharge water, which will ultimately reach natural waterways and potentially poison fish and other aquatic organisms. The human health impacts of nanosilver are still largely unknown. The U.S. federal government has invested only a small percentage of its overall nanotechnology research funding in understanding the risks posed by nanomaterials, according to an analysis conducted last year by PEN, further highlighting the need for more research on the potential risks posed by nanomaterials.
A legal petition was filed in May 2008 by the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA), the Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, and others including Beyond Pesticides, challenging EPA’s failure to regulate nanosilver as a unique pesticide. The 100-page petition addresses the serious human health concerns raised by these unique substances, as well as their potential to be highly destructive to natural environments, and calls on the EPA to fully analyze the health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology, and require labeling of all products.
Many of the nano-silver infused products are 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 little research on nanosilver’s potential human health impacts. Studies have questioned whether traditional assumptions about silver’s safety are sufficient in light of the unique properties of nano-scale materials.
For more information on silver nanoparticles, visit our antibacterial webpage