Did you see the headlines Thanksgiving Day? "EPA to review safety of products made with silver 'nanoparticles.'" What does it mean? Well, it's going to assure an interesting 2007 for the burgeoning nanotechnology-enabled industry. And if you'll excuse the wordplay, I hope Turkey Day doesn't spawn nanotechnology ostriches who are going to hide their heads in the regulatory sand.
First, let's backtrack and get the facts behind the headline. The trigger for the EPA decision was a Samsung washing machine. The "SilverWash" contains silver nanoparticles and claims that it helps to kill bacteria in clothes by releasing silver ions into the water during the wash.
Various U.S water authorities became concerned that discharged nanosilver might accumulate in the water system, particularly in wastewater treatment plants where beneficial bacteria are used to purify water of its toxins. This opinion means that nanosilver could be viewed as an environmental pesticide, requiring the product to be registered and tested under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. In the words of EPA spokesperson Jennifer Wood, "The release of silver ions in the washing machines is a pesticide, because it is a substance released into the laundry for the purpose of killing pests."
So what does this really mean to nano-industry? Specifically, we're not sure yet. It will take several months for the final rules to be detailed in the Federal Register. But some of the early responses have me scratching my head.
One company has removed any reference to nanosilver from their marketing information for antimicrobial devices. Apparently, in the short run, that excludes them from any ruling. As Jim Jones, director of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, said, "Unless you're making a claim to kill a pest, you're not a pesticide."
According to a recent article in Small Times, a nanotechnology trade journal, Matthew Nordan of Lux Research was quoted as saying, "I know of at least two personal care companies that have delivered the message from on high explicitly not allowing the words 'nanotechnology,' 'nano-engineered,' 'nano-capsule,' or anything else like them."
We haven't yet heard reports of companies halting research or product development based on the ruling, but I fear it's a topic of discussion in labs and boardrooms across the country.
Seems to me, these decisions represent the ostrich approach, sidestepping the issues, rather than seeing them as an opportunity to set standards and build an attitude of trust with consumers. My biggest fear is that the "ostrich factor" isn't short term. Five years from now, will we still have our heads in the sand? Meanwhile the rest of the world is moving ahead on nanotechnology in logical, considered fashion.
I've been vocal in my support an open sharing of information to expedite environmental, health and safety research and the development of reasonable standards. I joined a session of the Environmental Protection Agency's Nanotechnology Work Group, which was charged with leading the discussion on nanotechnology regulation. I've also met with various publications and foundations on the topic.
I was heartened to see that in a bi-partisan statement, the House Science Committee is urging the Bush Administration and key federal agencies to "quickly put together a plan and a budget to implement recommendations" put forward in a report by concerned scientists. I couldn't agree more.
A year ago, I wrote in this column that while the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office was planning to invest $39 million in fiscal year 2006 on researching and developing standards, the nanotech industry was recommending as much as $100 million. I stand by the recommendation, and here's why. I still believe that centuries of naturally occurring nanomaterials support the belief that nanotechnology can enable safe, effective products. I believe we need to invest in confirming that fact so that science, industry and the consuming public can move ahead with assurance. The repercussions of inaction could be dire. To begin, breakthrough ideas that are on the near horizon may stall. Did you know that this is the year when eco-friendly solar sells may be mass-produced using nano-ink? There are anti-cancer drugs, approved by the FDA, that include nanoparticles in their formulation. And nano-enhanced products from odor-reducing sweat-socks to stain-resistant slacks to my own company's glass coatings continue to provide consumers real value and new performance. At the same time, researchers around the world will continue to move ahead. A year is long time in today's product development cycle. The lead America has in the field could quickly evaporate.
So let me say it again. Our industry, our government and our country need to keep watchfully moving ahead or we stall. And putting our head in the sand can't possibly facilitate forward motion. So what do you do? Keep reading, watching and learning. And keep your head up.
Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio. His e-mail address is [email protected].