EPA to Regulate Nanoproducts Sold As Germ-Killing

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Environmental Protection Agency has decided to regulate a large class of consumer items made with microscopic "nanoparticles" of silver, part of a new but increasingly widespread technology that may pose unanticipated environmental risks, a government official said yesterday.

The decision -- which will affect the marketing of high-tech odor-destroying shoe liners, food-storage containers, air fresheners, washing machines and a wide range of other products that contain tiny bacteria-killing particles of silver -- marks a significant reversal in federal policy. It also creates an unexpected regulatory hurdle for the burgeoning field of nanotechnology, which involves the creation of materials just a few ten-thousandths the diameter of a human hair.

Until now, new products made with tiny germ-fighting particles of silver did not have to pass muster with regulators. That has concerned environmentalists and others who think that the growing amount of nanosilver washed down drains may be killing beneficial bacteria and aquatic organisms and may also pose risks to human health.

Most nanomaterials -- which by definition are on the scale of a billionth of a meter -- will remain outside the purview of the new EPA decision. But experts said the move is the first federal restriction to focus largely on nanotechnology, an emerging engine of technological innovation that promises major advances in materials science and medicine.

"This is something of a test case," said Andrew Maynard, chief scientific adviser for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"Nanotechnology can mean so many different things," Maynard said, because the technology is used to make a variety of products. "Specific examples like this will gradually help us make clear decisions as to whether existing regulatory approaches are adequate."

Under the new determination, first reported on Tuesday by the Daily Environment Report, a Washington publication, and confirmed yesterday by the EPA, 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.

"We will be able to evaluate them and ensure that these products are not going to do damage to the aquatic environment," said Jim Jones, director of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs.

Sean Murdock, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, a trade organization for companies that make or use nanomaterials, said he had not seen details of the plan and could not predict its effect on the industry.

Jones said the final rules will be spelled out in the Federal Register sometime in the next few months. He acknowledged, however, that the EPA oversight will apply only to products advertised as germ-killing -- a detail that at least one major retailer has apparently noted.

The Sharper Image, which until recently advertised as anti-microbial several products containing nanosilver, has dropped all such references from its marketing materials.

In such cases, Jones said, the EPA will not act. "Unless you're making a claim to kill a pest, you're not a pesticide," he said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company