When is a washing machine not a washing machine? When it’s a pesticide. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took the unusual step of ruling that Samsung’s high-tech SilverCare line, which the company says kills germs by flushing 100 quadrillion nanoparticles of silver into each wash load, should be treated - and regulated - just like any other germicidal product.
The decision caused a stir in green circles: It’s the closest any government agency has come to regulating nanotechnology, the science of building structures on scales 1/80,000th the width of a human hair. But officials quickly moved to dampen the excitement, saying they would only monitor products that claim to kill germs; all other nano-products - even those using exactly the same technology as Samsung’s machines - would continue to go unregulated.
The move perpetuates the agency’s long-standing laissez-faire approach to nanotechnology: From a regulatory standpoint, officials argue, size simply doesn’t matter. Why treat nanoparticles of silver and carbon any differently than one would treat silver cutlery or carbon pencil leads?
Unfortunately, the value of nanotechnology lies in the fact that on a nano-scale, substances behave very differently. That can be enormously useful - carbon nanotubes are stronger than steel, and conduct electricity better than copper - but are also highly dangerous. Some nanocarbons cause fatal lung diseases in lab rats; nanosilver, the most common particle in commercial use, is toxic to aquatic life and numerous ecologically important microorganisms.
That might not matter if nanotechnology were still the stuff of bad sci-fi; but the science of small things has moved off the drawing board and into the marketplace. Nanotechnology is already on American shelves, in everything from condoms and cosmetics to beer bottles and baby toys. The global market already tops $50 billion, and is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2015.
So far, the scant efforts to regulate the industry have been driven by nanotech companies themselves, who are well aware of the potential risks and hope to head off a damaging backlash. Unsurprisingly, that’s led to business-friendly policies, with companies dictating the terms of voluntary risk reduction deals and even convincing lawmakers to consider shielding them from future lawsuits and cleanup costs.
Nanotechnology is a promising technology, with potential uses in everything from treating HIV to preventing pollution; greens shouldn’t align themselves with the grey goo brigade who believe it should be banned altogether. But we do need to understand the risks as we move forward - and that means proper regulation. It’s time the EPA stopped ducking the issue and did its job.
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