“Paralysis” On Nanosilver?
by Gwyneth K. Shaw | Jul 6, 2012 12:55 am
Posted to: Environment, Nanotech, Science/ Medical
(NHI Nanoblog) Amid the latest in a long list of scientific reviews of the potential problems posed to people, animals and the environment by super-small silver particles, two Danish researchers say it’s time to stop pondering—and start regulating.
In a sharply-worded commentary recently published online by the scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology, Steffen Foss Hansen and Anders Baun make a simple point about what’s typically pitched as a complicated question about whether nanosilver should be controlled by new laws in Europe.
“We do not see the need for further reviews,” they write. “It is time for the European Commission to decide on the regulatory measures that are appropriate for nanosilver. These measures should then be implemented wholeheartedly and their effectiveness monitored.”
Hansen and Baun are speaking specifically to the call, issued late last year, by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks, of SCENIHR, for feedback about nanosilver. The deadline for input was last month; it’s unclear when the committee’s review will be released.
But the Danish authors lay out a blueprint for what the think the report will say, based on existing scientific research on nanosilver, which is increasingly popular as an antimicrobial agent. It’s being used in everything from hospital-grade wound dressings to workout clothes and air filters to kill germs.
The committee won’t uncover anything new, Hansen and Baun write. And by continuing to kick around the same research, the EC seems determined to put off a decision on whether, and how, to regulate nanosilver, they say.
“By initiating one review after the other, regulators have created an unfortunate situation of ‘paralysis by analysis’ because reviews tend to identify additional research needs rather than the options for optimal regulatory policies,” they write.
Given the uncertainty about whether nanosilver is more toxic than its larger-sized cousin, Hansen and Baun admit that formulating those policies won’t be easy. But they point to existing proposals to move toward concrete rules, including a recommendation from the German Institute for Risk Assessment that the substance be kept out of consumer products.
Nanotechnology is a broad term that encompasses a wide variety of uses of very small materials. (A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.) These substances can make better batteries or lighter and stronger bike frames, as well as new medical instruments and medicines that can save lives. They’re increasingly common in consumer products, from “mineral-based” sunscreens to stain-repellent pants to boat paints that resist algae growth.
Nanomaterials are believed to hold great promise for a wide variety of applications. Their ultra-tiny size often gives them different properties, which is inherent to their appeal; scientists are struggling to figure out whether that can make them dangerous in the process, and how and why it happens.
Nanosilver is a flashpoint in the United States, too. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has studied the substance, and treats nanosilver as a pesticide when it’s explicitly used as an antimicrobial. Late last year, the agency granted its first conditional registration to a nanosilver-based pesticide, which is for use in textiles.
The Natural Resources Defense Council sued the EPA to try to keep the product off the market, saying the agency needs more information about health and safety issues first. According to the blog of the Washington law firm Bergeson & Campbell, which has been tracking the case, the EPA recently filed a response to the suit, maintaining that the risks are low and have been well-studied by the agency.
In the meantime, the documents continue to pile up, raising what Hansen and Baun see as the essential question: “When will governments and regulatory agencies stop asking for more reports and reviews, and start taking regulatory action?”
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