Nanosilver Stinks

No one wants to smell bad when they’re playing sports or camping, so everyone should go out and buy antibacterial, odor-fighting clothes. At least that’s what companies like HeiQ Materials Ag are betting on, by making antibacterial clothes and other textiles by treating them with nanosilver. Ignoring the silly idea that you have to smell pretty when you’re sweating, should we be allowing our clothes to be treated with this pesticide?

A month ago, EPA announced its plan to allow nanosilver to be registered as a pesticide for use as a preservative on textiles like clothing, towels, and bed sheets. NRDC submitted comments opposing EPA’s plans because it is illegal, irresponsible, and potentially dangerous to the public.

Silver is a well-recognized antimicrobial; it is very toxic to aquatic organisms (of all the metals, only mercury is more toxic), can bioaccumulate in ocean plants, and is persistent in the environment.  Nanosilver – or silver nanoparticles – works because it is designed to release silver ions, meaning people who wear them will be exposed to them, and that when these textiles are laundered, nanosilver will be washed into our waterways.  

When a company applies to register a pesticide, it must submit a specific list of data to be used by EPA to determine  whether the pesticide can be used without harming humans or the environment. Sometimes, EPA will ask the company to submit additional data; when it does, it can grant the company a time-limited “conditional registration” so the pesticide goes onto the market while the company works on developing this additional data. Then, EPA is supposed to look at this new data and decide whether the pesticide should continue to be registered.   

On paper, this process seems to be a fair way to collect newly required data and not punish the company. However, in reality, it is grossly misused. And at least in the case of nanosilver, EPA is using it illegally. As it turns out, EPA is proposing to allow the company to use nanosilver for the next 4 years while it develops and submits a host of missing data. The problem is that some of this data is legally required to be submitted as part of the initial application, not after. In essence, EPA is giving this company a four year free pass to generate data that EPA’s own regulations written 26 years ago have always required to be submitted upfront. For a pesticide that has some potentially devastating effects when released into the environment, and potentially damaging effects when absorbed by humans, EPA should be more discriminating about who gets a conditional registration. 

About the Authors

Mae Wu

Senior Attorney, Health program

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