Smaller than a virus and used in more than 200 consumer products, silver nanoparticles can kill and mutate fish embryos, new research shows.
Tiny particles of silver – potent anti-microbial agents that can kill bacteria on contact – are becoming increasingly popular in consumer goods, including washing machines, refrigerators, clothing and toys.
But as use of these microscopic silver particles grows, some scientists now are raising concerns about potential effects on the environment and human health.
Many nanoparticles, including nanosilver, wash down drains and are not removed by sewage treatment, so they are discharged into lakes and rivers, where fish and other aquatic life are exposed. Research into the environmental implications of these silver nanoparticles has begun, but there are no answers yet about what happens when they enter ecosystems.
“I think we jumped the gun” by creating such large volumes of nanoparticles, said University of Utah researcher Darin Furgeson. “We should take more time and really look at these new nano-systems before we start to throw them into personal products and shoot them into these ecosystems.”
Nanotechnology is projected to be a trillion dollar industry by 2015, with some saying it will be the focus of the next industrial revolution. The number of products – including sunscreens, paints, vitamins, food additives, electronics, vehicles and appliances – that use nanomaterials has increased almost 380 percent since 2006, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit group that tracks nanotechnology.
Nanoparticles are pieces of metal or other substances that are engineered to measure less than 100 nanometers in length. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. In comparison, a human blood cell is about 8,000 nanometers and the HIV virus is about 130.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a new research strategy to better understand the environmental effects of these microscopic particles. In addition, last year, the EPA and the National Science Foundation established two new centers, led by UCLA and Duke University, to examine the environmental implications of nanotechnology.
“The same special properties that make nanoscale materials useful are also properties that may cause some nanoscale materials to pose potential risks to humans and the environment, under specific conditions. At this point not enough information exists to fully assess these risks,” said an EPA report released in January. The report summarized the EPA’s Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program, which collected voluntary information from companies that manufacture or use nanoparticles.