Nanosilver in Your Soup? EPA Sued For Failing to Regulate Tiny Pesticides


If you haven’t heard of nanosilver, you’re definitely not alone. But that doesn’t mean these tiny silver particles intended to kill bacteria aren’t ending up in your food. There are now over 400 consumer products [PDF] on the market made with nanosilver. These include many intended for use with food, among them cutting boards, cutlery, pans, storage containers, espresso machines, water filters, baby bottles, and refrigerators.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers nanosilver a pesticide and requires products that contain–or are treated with this germ-killer–to be registered with and approved for use by the agency. But most of the nanosilver products now on the market have not been reviewed, let alone approved by the EPA.

Just a few weeks ago, in an attempt to close this loophole, the Center for Food Safety, the Center for Environmental Health, Clean Production Action, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and other nonprofits filed suit against the EPA for failing to respond to their 2008 petition [PDF], asking the agency to regulate all products containing nanosilver as pesticides.

Why all the fuss?

As the name implies, nanosilver is silver used at the nanoscale, in the realm of billionths of a meter. To put this in perspective, one strand of human hair is about 50,000 to 80,000 nanometers wide. What makes nanomaterials so interesting to scientists designing new materials is that at this infinitesimal scale, materials can behave entirely differently than they do at either the macro or micro scales.

At the nanoscale, materials can take on chemical, physical, and biological properties that they might not otherwise have. And there are still many of unknowns, even in the scientific community, about how nanomaterials behave.

It is known that nanosilver can kill bacteria and microbes, so manufacturers are including it as a sort of antiseptic safeguard in food contact products that might harbor bacteria (i.e., that pesky cutting board on your kitchen counter.) But exactly how nanosilver behaves once released into the environment or absorbed into the human body, is not yet well understood. A number of studies show that consumer products, including textiles and plastics, can shed nanosilver particles. In fact, these particles have been detected in wastewater and sewage sludge.

Recent studies also show that nanosilver has the potential to harm and stress cells in ways that include causing damage to DNA.

Among the concerns raised by the growing use of nanosilver as antimicrobial agents in consumer products, explains Center for Food Safety’s Senior Policy Analyst Jaydee Hanson, is that it, like other antibacterial ingredients, “may lead to bacteria becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.”

Despite the many gaps in understanding the environmental and human health impacts of nanomaterials, the EPA has already granted what’s called “conditional approval” to some nanosilver products, saying the silver released will not cause unreasonable adverse effects.

This brings us back to EPA oversight and approval. So far, the EPA has only reviewed the few nanosilver products that manufacturers have submitted to the agency for registration as pesticides. Under the law, manufacturers must have EPA approval to make claims about a product’s germ-killing ability. The agency has enforced this law, taking a number of nanosilver products off the market, as it did earlier this year with some   sold widely by retailers that included Amazon, Pathway, Sears, and Walmart.

According to the recent lawsuit, however, other manufacturers have simply changed their product labels to remove germ-killing claims, in an effort to avoid EPA enforcement or product scrutiny. These products, however, may still contain nanomaterials.

In short, the plaintiffs contend that EPA is not regulating nanosilver products comprehensively as required under the U.S. law governing pesticides.

Asked about any EPA approval of nanosilver for use in food-contact products, an EPA spokesperson responded by email explaining that the agency “has approved nanosilver for use as a non-food-contact preservative to protect plastics and textiles … from odor and stain causing bacteria, fungi, mold, and mildew.” But they did not respond about food contact products directly.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates chemicals used in food contact products, responded by saying it has “not approved the use of silver nanomaterial for use as a food ingredient added to food or as a food contact substance.” So while EPA has approved some nanosilver products for use in plastics, its approval does not cover food-contact products of the type that are now being sold–without FDA approval.

To make matters more confusing, in a “guidance document” issued last June, the FDA said it had “not established regulatory definitions of “nanotechnology,” “nanomaterial,” “nanoscale,” or other related terms.” The same document also says safety evaluations of such products should consider their “unique” characteristics.

The bottom line appears to be that both EPA and FDA–the agencies responsible for regulating chemicals used in consumer products–acknowledge significant gaps in understanding the behavior and toxicity of nanomaterials, including nanosilver. Yet such products–including those for use with food–are growing in number and availability while research shows that nanosilver can indeed escape from these items.

So what happens next? “The EPA hopefully will say they want to settle,” and develop a legally binding “timeline to respond to the petition,” says CFS’ Hanson. In the meantime, nanosilver may be finding its way from these materials into the food we eat. If you’re concerned about their potential environmental and health effects, you might want to stay away from kitchen items that claim to kill germs and follow good food safety practices instead.

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  1. Andrea Silverthorne
    Wednesday, December 31st, 2014
    I did extensive research on nano particles for a school journalism assigment. The most disturbing thing I read: a young man was given a prize for discovering that fresh water dinoflagellates would eat the silver nanos being released to the lakes and streams of Canada from washing machines. I had just read previously that NOAA did research on the increasing toxicity of salt water dinos and discovered their increasing toxicity was cause by their consumption of metal ions. Worship of the latest scientific discovery with a fast embrace instead of slowly research its total impact is a problem Dinos in amoebic stages are the flesh eating bacteria; they are evolving and now have an eye. Will the silver nanos make them a better predator?
  2. Ronald Ney, Jr., PhD
    Wednesday, December 31st, 2014
    Ronald E. Ney, Jr., Advocate for Validated Science and founder and former Chief of Environmental Chemistry, USEPA; for Fate and Transport of Pesticides in Air, Water, Soil, Plants and Animals, and Modeling. I wrote the data requirements for 40CFR § 158.290 and § 158.1300 Subpart N and defended them.

    If the product does not make a claim that the chemical mitigates a pest under the Federal Insecticide Fungicide Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) than it is not a pesticide. There are ingredients in toothpaste containing registered pesticides but make no claims that the ingredient is used to mitigate a pest and thus are not registered products. Black pepper contains an ingredient called safrole which is a known carcinogen and a former registered pesticide but does not need to be registered because there are no claims to it to mitigate a pest.

    The following quoted statements is false and misleading because if there is no claim that a chemical is used to mitigate a pest it does not have to be registered as I have shown above even if it is dangerous.
    Quote, “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers nanosilver a pesticide and requires products that contain–or are treated with this germ-killer–to be registered with and approved for use by the agency.” end of quote.
    • This does not mean the chemicals are not dangerous to a child, pregnant woman, nursing mothers, persons with immune disorders and etc.
     There are many registered pesticides in products that make no claims that they mitigate a pest and are not registered.

    The following quoted statement does deserve to be considered.
    Quote, “But most of the nanosilver products now on the market have not been reviewed, let alone approved by the EPA.” end of quote.
    • This does not mean the chemicals are not dangerous to a child, pregnant woman, nursing mothers, persons with immune disorders and etc.
    • I agree that they should be reviewed for safety but under what U.S. Regulation and who has authority to do so and regulate this. Perhaps Consumer Safety Commission does.
  3. Roger
    Wednesday, December 31st, 2014
    This is probably far more reaching than a little nano silver getting into food.
    i think its more about their continuous attempts to control the natropathic remedies market.
    for years they have been trying to regulate and control this market so that people will have no choice but to use the poisons put out by big pharma as natural remedies will be relatively useless at the levels they will allow.
    silver has been used for generations to fight viruses & bacteria long before antibiotics came along with no side effects at small doses.high end water filters use a silver membrane to kill E coli & Coli-form bacteria.
    I don't think its really anything to worry about, as you can buy both nano & colloidal silver, I use it for cuts or flu or cold.
  4. Donna
    Thursday, January 1st, 2015
    Wow Andrea, thank you for your input. Very interesting and yes, quite disturbing as well. Love
  5. Anne
    Thursday, January 1st, 2015
    And lots of types of makeup and sunscreen apparently have nano materials. It's difficult to know which ones. We are all lab rats with no controls.
  6. mongo
    Thursday, January 1st, 2015
    This article is so full of innuendos and misleading statements it's ridiculous! Silver is everywhere in our environment and soil in "nano-particle" size, you worry about a few particles of silver in toxic plastic but never mention silverware, silver bowls, silver platters, silver cups and a numerous array of other items that constantly release "nano particles" constantly that have been in use for centuries, silver in any form has never been proven to create super bugs, in fact the opposite is true, also how about all the "FDA approved"
    antibiotics that are constantly flushed down the toilets in this country every day, you are either highly mis informed or a troll for the antibacterial soap or pharmaceutical industry!
  7. mongo
    Thursday, January 1st, 2015
    In response to Andrea Silverthorne. It seems odd that you have done "extensive research" and don't know the difference between a nano particle (elemental silver particle) and an ion (silver atom missing one of it's electrons thus making it bio-active until it QUICKLY bonds with numerous chlorides in the environment becoming inactive!
  8. Elizabeth Grossman
    Friday, January 2nd, 2015
    A note from the reporter: The EPA states clearly that
    "Under federal pesticide law, products that contain an unregistered pesticide as an active ingredient or claim to kill or repel bacteria or germs are considered pesticides and must be registered with the EPA prior to distribution or sale." The EPA also says that "federal pesticide regulations also cover treated articles, which are treated with or contain a pesticide to protect the article or substance itself..." The lawsuit contends that EPA has not responded to the 2008 petition asking EPA to comprehensively regulate products that use nano silver as a germ-killing ingredient. EPA also acknowledges widespread use of nanosilver in consumer products. See: http://1.usa.gov/1Br59lr