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Daily News Archive
From December 6, 2006                                                                                                        

EPA To Regulate Germ-Killing Nanoproducts; Environmental Groups Wary of Nanotechnology Risks
(Beyond Pesticides, December 6, 2006) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has decided to regulate a large class of consumer items made with microscopic silver, referred to as nanosilver, which are incorporated into a wide range of consumer items used to kill bacteria and germs including high-tech odor-destroying shoe liners, socks and slippers, toothpaste, pillows, food storage containers, bandages, and air fresheners.

Under the new regulation, as reported by the Washington Post last week, any company wishing to sell a product that it claims will kill germs by the release of nanotech silver or related technology will first have to provide scientific evidence that the product does not pose an environmental risk. The new regulation is expected to be published in the Federal Register by the end of the month.

Up until now, new products made with nanosilver did not have to pass through testing or regulation, raising concerns that nanosilver washed down drains may be killing beneficial bacteria and aquatic organisms, and posing human health risks. Now, nanosilver products will fall under the guidelines of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).

According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, there are several consumer items containing nanosilver on the market.

The term nanotechnology refers to research and technology that manipulates matter at the atomic, molecular, or macromolecular levels using a length scale of approximately one to one hundred nanometers in any dimension. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, or around one ten-thousandth the diameter of a human hair.

Nanotechnology allows certain materials to have different molecular organizations and properties because at their tiny size, they have far more surface area relative to their mass than their larger counterparts. Silver, for instance, has been known for years for its biocide properties in its bulk form, as well as for its hazardous health effects, but is more efficient as nanoparticles.

Nanosilver is the first form of nanotechnology regulated by EPA. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates certain nanoproducts, including pharmaceuticals, medical devices and biologicals. Products like foods and cosmetics, and materials such as food additives and food packaging also come under the purview of FDA. However, unlike pharmaceuticals and medical devices, FDA monitors the behavior of these products and takes regulatory action only if adverse events occur that “threaten public or individual health.” Nanomaterials are extremely common in cosmetics, and may pose a growing threat to public health, as their tiny size may allow them to be incorporated into the bloodstream and pass through cell membranes.

According to EPA’s new nanosilver regulations, products containing nanosilver are only regulated if they make a pesticidal claim and advertise the product as germ killing, a regulatory oversight that major retailers have begun to note. For instance, the Sharper Image, which until recently advertised products containing nanosilver, including socks, as anti-microbial, has dropped all such references from its marketing materials, and will not fall under EPA’s oversight.

Environmental groups are taking note of this gap in nanosilver regulation. "Its sounds like a major legal loophole and is probably something that will have to be dealt with in the courts," said Mae Wu, a lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has been pushing EPA to regulate nanosilver.

Beyond asking for EPA to close the loophole in nanosilver regulation, environmental and public health groups, as well as scientific organizations, are also calling for broader regulation of this booming market so that all nanomaterials are fully tested for health and safety effects before being put into the market. In a 2004 report, the United Kingdom’s Royal Society—a well-respected, independent academy of science—recommends that “ingredients in the form of nanoparticles undergo a full safety assessment by the relevant scientific advisory body before they are permitted for use in products.” Additionally, groups such as Friends of the Earth, the ETC group, and Greenpeace UK have called for a moratorium on nanoparticles.