A group of scientists tested how well silver nanoparticles stayed in treated fabrics under conditions similar to a washing machine. They considered mechanical stress and chemical factors such as bleaches, pH and surfactants.
First, they measured the silver content of several different brands and types of fabrics that used silver nanoparticles.
They then washed the fabrics in detergent, later adding steel balls to simulate mechanical stress that would be similar to normal washing conditions. Some of the fabrics were also treated with bleaching agents during washing.
When the fabrics were washed in water with detergent only, the silver generally stayed in the fabrics. However, several fabrics released silver quite readily once the steel balls were added to mimic mechanical actions of the washing machine.
Of the seven nanoparticle fabrics subjected to mechanical stress, four lost roughly 20 percent to 35 percent of their silver with the first wash.
They’re touted as the latest miracle fighter in the war against germs, but nanosilver products are shaping up to be the latest example of a good idea gone bad.
Nanosilver is composed of tiny particles of silver (so tiny they’re smaller than a virus) that can kill bacteria on contact. These anti-microbial agents are already used in more than 200 products, ranging from refrigerators and washing machines to clothing and toys.
Nanosilver is just one segment of the growing nanotechnology field, an industry that this Scientific American article states is being regarded as the next industrial revolution.
Nanomaterials have already increased nearly 380 percent since 2006, according to the article, and are projected to become a trillion-dollar industry within the next five years.
What is Nanotechnology?
For those of you who are new to the term, nanotechnology refers to the study and design of systems at the scale of the atom, or the nanoscale. At the most basic level, the manufacturing is actually the rearranging of individual molecules and atoms into complex "molecular machines."
One nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, which is a measure so small it’s absolutely useless as a reference point. To get some idea of just how small these particles are, consider that a human blood cell is 8,000 nanometers, and a human hair is 80,000 nanometers wide.
On one level, nanoparticles are an incredible advance of technology. For instance, in the supplement industry, nanotechnology can shrink the size of vitamin molecules down to microscopic nanodroplets that are much easier for your body to absorb.
On the other hand, nanoparticles are so small that that they can easily be inhaled or absorbed through your skin, so great care needs to be taken as to what types of particles are being produced on the nano-scale.
Unfortunately, nanosilver has already been added into hundreds of consumer products --and the real health and environmental effects are just now beginning to come out.
Nanosilver Comes Out of Fabric During Washing
A new study by Swiss scientists has revealed that nanosilver does not simply stay in clothing, fighting bacteria and odors. Instead, they are leaching out of the clothing when they’re washed.
The scientists added seven different nanoparticle fabrics to a washing machine with steel balls added to simulate mechanical stress that would occur under normal washing conditions. Four of the fabrics lost roughly 20 percent to 35 percent of their silver with the first wash.
From there, of course, the nanosilver does not simply collect inside your washing machine. It raises the question of whether the nanosilver is also transferred to your skin during normal wear, and, certainly, it washes down your drain and out into the environment.
Fish Mutations Already Discovered
What do nanosilver particles do when they’re widely released into the environment? Nobody knows. And in the true style of U.S. regulatory groups, the EPA is just now announcing a research strategy to help understand what impact nanoparticles will have on the environment.
It appears likely that some damage will be done; the question is now, how much?
One new study published in the nanotechnology journal Small found that zebrafish embryos exposed to nanosilver were extremely mutated.
Some fish died while others grew into the shape of the number nine or a comma. Others had mutations to their eyes, swim bladders, tails and hearts.
A prior study also found that when juvenile largemouth bass were exposed to uncoated fullerenes, a common nanomaterial produced by the tons, they suffered oxidative damage to their brains and also harmed their gills and livers.
And in 2007, the U.S. EPA determined that washing machines using silver ion nanoparticle disinfectants need to be registered as a pesticide. However, the EPA's decision ultimately had no effect because companies can avoid registering washing machines simply by removing any statements that silver can kill bacteria from their advertising.
Said University of Utah researcher Darin Furgeson, who led the Small journal study, in Scientific American:
“I think we jumped the gun” by creating such large volumes of nanoparticles. “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.”
What Does the Future of Nanotechnology Hold?
I’m typically a major advocate of technology, but I have mixed feelings about the use of nanotechnology, particularly when it comes to exposing your body to these complex molecules (see, for example, the results of a study on brain-damaging sunscreens).
While I welcome this radical breakthrough, I remain very concerned about nanotechnology becoming another form of pollution that has the potential to cause more harm than good.
If harnessed properly, nanotechnology has the potential to make major strides in conventional medicine and other areas related to your health, but if it falls into irresponsible hands the results could be devastating.