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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies > Is Nano Business Going to Clean Up its Own Act?

David Rejeski
Director
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Abstract:
On March 5, 2008, the Region IX office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a landmark decision to fine the company IOGEAR $208,000 for "selling unregistered pesticides and making unproved claims about their effectiveness." The action by EPA Region IX officials could result in companies and consumers reconsidering antimicrobial claims and the use of nanoscale silver in products. A lesser known, but equally intriguing aspect to this story, is that the enforcement action came as the result of a tip from an IOGEAR competitor. Nobody in the nano industry benefits from companies making hyped-up and unsubstantiated claims about nanotechnology's benefits and in the absence of more formal government regulation, self-regulation by industry could be a step in the right direction.

March 31st, 2008

Is Nano Business Going to Clean Up its Own Act?

On March 5, 2008, the Region IX office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a landmark decision to fine the company IOGEAR (subsidiary of ATEN Technology, Inc.) $208,000 for "selling unregistered pesticides and making unproved claims about their effectiveness" (1). Enforcement officials in Region IX - which includes Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, the Pacific Islands and many tribal nations - based its action on the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide & Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which prohibits companies from selling, distributing, or using an unregistered pesticide unless it qualifies for an exemption (2).

The IOGEAR products of concern were the "wireless laser mouse with nano shield coating, laser travel mouse with nano coating technology, and wireless RF keyboard and mouse combinations," according to a Region IX statement (3). IOGEAR had been claiming that these products were coated with a "Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) and Silver (Ag) nano-particle compound" that "deactivate[d] enzymes and proteins of bacteria from surviving on the surface of the product[s]" (4).

The action by EPA Region IX officials could result in companies and consumers reconsidering antimicrobial claims and the use of nanoscale silver in products - an issue that was raised about two years ago by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) concerning Samsung's "Silver Wash" washing machine (5). The machine supposedly floods wash water with antimicrobial silver ions, creating super clean T-shirts but also potentially threatening biological functioning when the excess silver flows into wastewater treatment plants.

The IOGEAR and Samsung products are just the tip of the antimicrobial iceberg being created by nanotechnology. As of February 28, 2008, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies had 143 manufacturer-identified products claming to use nanoscale silver in its Consumer Products Inventory, many being marketed with claims similar to those made by IOGEAR.

IOGEAR is still selling its wireless laser mouse, laser travel mouse, and wireless RF keyboard and mouse combination on its Web site - but with no mention of nanotechnology (6). It is possible that the company has stopped using nanotechnology in its products, but it is far more likely that it has opted to simply stop making the claims that led to the EPA Region IX's action in the first place. Of course, if you can't make the claim, what is the big deal about nanotech anyway?

One must wonder if this will be the course of action that other companies choose to take. Will companies conduct the studies necessary to support their anti-microbial claims or, more broadly, enlist independent labs to verify the benefits that nanotech brings to their products? Or will they opt, instead, to be less forthcoming about the use of nanoscale silver in their products? The implications of EPA Region IX's action for the responsible development of nanotechnology are unclear - but there may be at least one positive outcome from the EPA's action.

Perhaps a lesser known, but equally intriguing aspect to this story, is that the enforcement action came as the result of a tip. A Region IX source says an IOGEAR competitor alerted environmental regulators about the company's potential violation -- so much for a business-friendly environment in the evolving nano world. After determining that IOGEAR's marketing materials and labels made "pesticidal claims," enforcement officials determined the company had violated FIFRA by failing to obtain necessary permits under the federal pesticide law.

"In the marketing of nano products, IOGEAR has made both implicit and explicit health and pesticidal claims," the settlement document says (7). "Statements by IOGEAR include claims that the nano coating has ‘mechanisms to deactivate enzymes and proteins to prevent bacteria from surviving on the surface of the product' and ‘the compound has been tested and proven effective against various bacteria.'"

Whatever the motives were behind this tipster's actions, it gives room to wonder - is it possible that nanotechnology businesses will regulate themselves? Will the ultimate regulator be the neighboring business in the local incubator facility? One thing is clear - nobody in the nano industry benefits from companies making hyped-up and unsubstantiated claims about nanotechnology's benefits. It just feeds public distrust of industry (already high) and increases the potential for public backlash. In the absence of more formal government regulation, self-regulation by industry could be a step in the right direction.

REFERENCES
(1) See "U.S. EPA fines Southern California technology company $208,000 for ‘nano coating' pesticide claims on computer peripherals," released 5 March 2008. Available at: http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/2dd7f669225439b78525735900400c31/16a190492f2f25d585257403005c2851!OpenDocument
(2) See "FIFRA Statute, Regulations & Enforcement." Available at: http://www.epa.gov/compliance/civil/fifra/fifraenfstatreq.html

(3) See "U.S. EPA fines Southern California technology company $208,000 for ‘nano coating' pesticide claims on computer peripherals," released 5 March 2008. Available at: http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/2dd7f669225439b78525735900400c31/16a190492f2f25d585257403005c2851!OpenDocument

(4) These claims have been removed from the IOGEAR website, but can still be found in the Project's Consumer Products Inventory. Available at: http://www.nanotechproject.org/inventories/consumer/

(5) See 24 February 2006 letter from Ken Kirk, executive director of NACWA, to Stephen Johnson, administrator of the EPA. Available at: http://www.penmedia.org/download/NACWA.pdf

(6) IOGEAR's wireless laser mouse ( http://www.iogear.com/product/GME227RW6/ ), laser travel mouse ( http://www.iogear.com/product/GME226/ ), and wireless RF keyboard/optical mouse combo ( http://www.iogear.com/product/GKM521R/ ) are no longer advertised as using nanotechnology.

(7) See EPA and IOGEAR settlement document. Available at: http://www.penmedia.org/download/settlement.pdf

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