Nano means small.
But the word, nor the science is anything new. In recent years the nano revolution has unlocked billions of dollars in commercial applications. The science of reducing basic elements down to microscopic or nano-sized particles has spawned a host of research possibilities for local companies like NanoMech of Springdale.
The commercial market value of nano-manufactured products is expected to top $3 trillion by 2015. The competitiveness of the science has been compared to a moon race. But it’s also raised environmental and health concerns among a number of consumer groups who want to see more government regulation. Or at the very least, the package includes labeling when consumer products are enhanced with various nanoparticles.
Seven consumer safety advocate groups filed suit against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December. The groups urged the government to study the risks associated with nanotechnology and oversee the widespread use of nanoparticles in consumer products.
These microscopic particles are now commonly used in circuit boards for smart phones, sunscreen, toothpaste, eyeglasses, refrigerators, paint, ink, water purifiers and anti-odor socks. There is no label requirement at this time.
Steve Suppan, senior policy advisor for the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policies, said the lawsuit is a concerted effort to get the government to study nanoparticles and possible health hazards, given there is no public research to speak of. His group is one of the seven parties backing the litigation. Fueling the debate is the growing use of nanosilver particles in everything from pesticides to toys, clothes, face creams and toothpaste.
Suppan raises the question, if consumers are overexposed to silver, will the effectiveness of its germ killing properties be diminished, somewhat like what has happened with the overuse of antibiotics.
Scientists like Patricia Maurice, professor of civil engineering and geological sciences at Notre Dame University, recently wrote: "Mineral properties are far more complex than scientists originally thought. We have demonstrated that mineral nanoparticles behave very differently with respect to environmental reactions and processes, compared to larger materials of the same mineral composition."
The National Research Council released a report earlier this month identifying major gaps in environmental, health and safety research of nanomaterials.
‘It is unacceptable that the FDA continues to allow unregulated and unlabeled nanomaterials to be used in products consumers use everyday,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director for Food & Water Watch, also a party to the suit. Hauter said it’s time for the government agency to live up to its mission and properly protect consumers against potential toxins associated with nanoparticles.
The FDA doesn’t comment on litigation but maintains it keeps an open dialogue on nanotechnology on its website. Since June the agency has published proposed guidelines for determining if nanomaterials have been used in FDA-regulated products.
“These guidelines provide a starting point for the nanotechnology discussion. Our goal is to regulate these products using the best possible science. Understanding nanotechnology remains a top priority within the agency’s regulatory science initiative. We will be prepared to usher science and public health into a new innovative era,” FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. notes on the agency website.
Local scientists like Ajay Malshe, chief technology officer and founder of NanoMech do respect the potential concerns. He recommends continued careful analysis with a fine balance between regulatory oversight and allowing American nano-manufacturing competitiveness to flourish in a timely manor.
“I don’t know why silver has become such as enemy to public health, scientists know it was commonly used by our grandmothers, who were known to put a silver coin in the milk jug to promote freshness,” Malshe said. “The brilliant colors of peacock feathers and butterfly wings are a prime examples of how Mother Nature has used nanoparticles throughout the ages,” he added.
Malshe isn’t fazed by the critics who are pushing for more government oversight for the industry he loves. He said NanoMech voluntarily submits its labs and manufacturing site to regular rigorous audits by Austin, Texas-based Nano Tox who works together with the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency compliance guidelines.
“These are highly qualified scientists and doctors who are proficient in their fields and also know the government protocol for safe operations. They help to put together a ‘best practices’ program that we adhere to at all times,” Malshe said. “We are not following the light, but we are the lantern leading the way.”
NanoMech CEO Jim Phillips said the company is also a member of the National Technology Initiative, which provides an ongoing dialog with the government agencies.
“We take safety very seriously, our people come first,” Malshe said.
NanoMech employs about 30 workers, the majority are scientists highly trained in their fields. Malshe has spent nearly two decades studying and teaching nanotechnology.
NanoMech was born out of Malshe’s research at the University of Arkansas. His commercial success was realized with an industrial application made possible because of nanotechnology. He and fellow scientists figured out how to coat cutting tools with cubic boron nitirate – a nano-compound that can extend the life of manufacturing tools by six times. The coating process was patented as TuffTek and has garnered the attention of John Deere, Honda and Caterpillar.
TuffTek is just the tip of the iceberg for NanoMech, who last year unveiled a new industrial lubricant patented as NanoGlide – a sustainable grease that greatly reduces friction. Demand for this product has prompted NanoMech to expand its manufacturing space.
“In the next two weeks we will nail down a site for our 6,000 square-foot expansion. It could be an addition to the manufacturing site in Springdale or a separate facility somewhere in this neighborhood,” Phillips said.
A third product made in Springdale and trademarked “nGuard” uses nanosilver particles in protective body armor that the company is making for the U.S. Department of Defense. Phillips said in combat zones, bullets are the first threat, infection is the second major concern when the skin is nicked. The body armor treated with nGuard has antimicrobial benefits.
“We are excited about the future of NanoMech and its array of sustainable products, but remain fully committed to safety at all times,” Phillips said.