An article by Barnaby Feder in this morning’s New York Times reminds us of a question that, even a year later, has not been completely resolved. Astute readers (and by "astute" I mean everyone who wasn’t under a rock) will remember the large discussion over the use of nanosilver as an anti-bacterial device, including the Samsung Silvercare washing machines. Well, its back, or rather, never really left.
This morning, Mr. Feder tells the story of an interesting little device called The Handler. In short, its a key-chain hook that is coated with nanosilver in order to stay microbe free while allowing one to handle germ covered surfaces, like handles in public restrooms. Its fun to flip them open and closed, and I even have one (albeit for demonstration purposes only). The Handler’s manufacturers have run into the same problem as Samsung–marketing a product as anti-microbial runs afoul of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) without prior registration. These aren’t the only products making such claims (for a specific example see the earlier post on the Seal Shield keyboard and mouse).
Correctly, Mr. Feder refocuses our prior discussion on what happens to these products while the EPA determines how best to regulate them. In this case, The Handler’s production has been suspended while the owners figure out what is required of them. In other cases, the anti-microbial claims were dropped altogether–case in point, no where on the Seal Shield box is an anti-microbial claim. Its implied, I believe, by the use of the phrase "infection control" and quotes from physicians using the words "disinfected" or "harmful bacteria," but nowhere does it make claims that it will kill the microbes or bacteria. And Samsung? Mr. Feder tells us that they were allowed to continue sales of the Silvercare machine while it developed the necessary registration paperwork.
It is unclear when The Handler will again be available for purchase in the United States, but this will not be the last product impacted by such uncertainty. Is this cause for alarm or a rush to regulation? No, but it shows the need to continually evaluate the science and data available in order to properly mitigate risks as they are presented. One, ok two, final questions are again raised in my mind: are existing laws and regulations suitable to address the unique realities of nanotechnology? While existing laws seem to be serving as a suitable "stop-gap" during this period of uncertainty, how long will those measure be sufficient in order to properly treat these new products and uses without unnecessarily endangering the public or unnecessarily stifling the development of such a promising technology?