Beware The Silver Lining: A Risk Management Review Of Commercial Nanotechnology

Per an aricle in Environmental Science & Technology Online, the 'wild west' days for nanotech commercial applications may be coming to an end. The US-EPA has, after being petitioned, decided to require a public risk evaluation for textile applications of silver ion technology. TreeHugger has previously posted on the Samsung SilverCare clothes washer, which dispenses nanoscale silver particles to kill bacteria, theoretically supplanting hot water and bleach to sanitize and, for a period after washing, deodorize clothing. This amounts to adding a bacteriocide to one's clothing, certainly an untraditional function of the home laundry. "In a major reversal, the U.S. EPA has determined that clothes washing machines that use silver ions as a disinfectant will have to be registered as a pesticide. Until now, the agency has not regulated nanomaterials, including silver ions, made of a bioaccumulating, persistent, and toxic metal. Yet EPA's decision may be meaningless, critics point out, because if the company deletes from its advertising the assertion that silver can kill bacteria, it won't have to register the washer".

We disagree with the "critics", because without the advertising hook of "sanitary," the unique product differentiation for SIlverCare pretty much disappears: it comes down to resource efficiency and price based competition.

What got EPA to act belatedly? If the silver technology scales up enough, the large infusion of silver ions continuously discharged into sanitary sewer systems all over the nation would potentially inhibit the bacterial cultures that treat wastewater in publicly owned treatment plants. That could mean municipal permit violations, added operating expenses for taxpayers, and, potentially, even downstream ecological effects. The risk may be uncertain, but why take it without carefully evaluating the unintended consequences? You can't take people's cloths and appliances away once the market becomes large. So, once the silver Genie is out, there's no getting him back into the washer.

Is there a metaphorical silver lining for TreeHuggers? Yep. Looks like EPA might get it's mojo back. One little nano bit at a time.

Image credit: ES

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