Q I just bought a Samsung washing machine that uses silver nano-particles to kill the bacteria on clothes without hot water, but I heard that it might not be very eco-friendly. Should I return it?
A Nano. The prefix is everywhere in science and tech circles these days, and, no, the discussion has nothing to do with those mini-iPods in everyone's pockets or Mork & Mindy scripts. Nanotechnology, in case you're not up to speed, essentially creates and manipulates molecules or atoms that are 1 billionth of a metre in size (that's 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair follicle).
Industry swears nano-mania will soon revolutionize everything from makeup to electronics, but critics say it's the next GMO, and cautionary lessons should be learned from our experience with GE seeds.
So where does your clothes washer fit into all this? Some manufacturers are using nano forms of silver, like Samsung's SilverCare washing machine which release over "100 quadrillion silver ions to sanitize clothing without the need for hot water or bleach." The claim is that since that silver kills 99.9 per cent of bacteria on your clothes without those two eco no-no's, it's more environmentally friendly than other machines. Of course, if you don't launder with hot water or bleach anyway, it really offers no ecological advantage, but that's beside the point.
The problem is that silver is considered a water pollutant and has been found to cause significant reproductive damage in Californian marine life. Lab research on nano-silver in particular has found it highly cytotoxic ( toxic to cells). It's certainly considered a contaminant in Toronto's sewers, and photo processing shops have to filter it out of their wastewater.
No one's really sure what the impact of a flood of nano-silver on, say, Lake Ontario, would be if we all switched to silver washing machines, and really, do you want to be part of that mass experiment?
The possibilities have raised enough eyebrows to get the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force Samsung to register its machine as a pesticide. No word on whether Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency will do the same. Environment Canada's new substances division says the ministry (and its international allies) is trying to get a handle on how to assess and monitor nanotechnology's impact on the environment but is far from figuring that out.
In the meantime, the teensy-weensy silver particles aren't just floating in your wash water. Manufacturers are embedding them in antibacterial socks, underwear, toothbrushes, baby bottles, spatulas, plastic food containers and at least 200 other consumer products. You can find a directory of these products, including the silver kind, at Nanotechproject.org.
Interestingly, the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council says one company, Sharper Image has removed any mention of its antibacterial nanosilver content from several of its products, including plastic food containers, slippers and socks, to avoid the bad press building around the tech.
Yes, silver's been used to kill germs for ages. In fact, many hospitals use silver-impregnated bandages on wounds, and alt-health circles swear by silver-imbued tinctures as a potent antibacterial tool. But swallowing a few millilitres of the stuff when you get sick and using nano-silver in your laundry softener, toothpaste and countless consumer products are entirely different scenarios.
The question is, can nanotech be earth-friendly? Hard to say, but the Woodrow Wilson International Center (which co-produced the nanotech directory mentioned above) runs an initiative called GreenNano that aims to encourage environmentally responsible nanotech. Whether it will succeed, and whether government can catch up to the technology in time to adequately control the nano tsunami is about as predictable as Mork & Mindy's rating collapse.
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