Benny the Bear, and the case of the disappearing nanoparticles

Let me introduce you to Benny the Bear. Benny is a rather cute cuddly toy sold by the U.S. company Pure Plushy—we met at a meeting of the U.S. Congressional Nanotech Caucus a few weeks back. His claim to fame is a resistance to moulds, mites and bacteria.

To quote Benny’s creators:

“… Using scientifically proven technologies, Pure Plushy has created a longer lasting, antimicrobial stuffed animal. Now children everywhere have a “clean way to play!””

And what is it that gives Benny his near-miraculous properties? Well, that takes a little detective work. From the “Our Technology” Web page at Pure Plushy”

“Specially treated Memory Foam makes Pure Plushy an innovative product. All of our products have been treated with our special EPA Approved formula.”

But what is this special treatment? To answer this, you have to go deep. The first clue comes from a reference on the Pure Plushy website to the ABC show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”, where Benny’s creators suggest you:

“Ask us why the designers of ‘Extreme Makeover’ keep choosing our Plush Plushy’s NanoTechnology Bear!!!”

Aha, so Benny’s secret is nanotech—but what sort of nanotech? Further digging unearths a small paragraph buried in Giftware News, that describes Pure Plushy as:

“the first company of its kind, that through the use of a patented technology, is offering anti-mite anti-mold and anti-microbial plush toys. The technology involves infusing silver, a natural anti-mite, anti-mold and anti-microbe agent, nanoparticles—25 nanometers thick, about one 200 thousandth of a human hair—inside memory foam.”

And according to the South Suburban Family Time Magazine:

“The Pure Plushy toys focus on eliminating mold, household bacteria and microorganisms by combining Silver Nanotechnology with memory foam, for a product that is clinically proven to fight against germs.”

So there we have it—Benny is stuffed with memory foam that has been infused with 25 nanometre diameter silver particles.

All these quotes appear on the Pure Plushy Web site, but you have to work hard to discover what it is that makes Benny special. Rather than being up-front about the technology, details of the silver nanotechnology being used by Pure Plushy have been all but expunged from the company’s literature and web site.

But it wasn’t always like that. Pull up a copy of the company’s Web site from earlier this year (www.archive.org does a great job here), and the story is very different. Some excerpts from the archived Web page:

“Pure Plushy—Soft, Fresh and Cuddly™ Silver nanotechnology infused memory Foam”

“Our Secret… Pure Silver + Memory Foam = Pure Plushy”

“Scientific Research has proven that Silver is a natural Anti-Mite, Anti-Mold and Anti-Microbe agent. Recent advances in Nanotechnology have demonstrated exciting new ways in which to put tiny microscopic particles of silver inside substances such as Memory Foam. Nanotechnology is the process of infusing nanoparticles (about 25 nanometers thick) which is about one 200 thousandths of a human hair into a substance. Using this safe, medically proven technology in Memory Foam, Pure Plushy can bring Soft, Fresh & Cuddly to Kids everywhere!”

If the nanotechnology used here is so good, why hide it? And if there are issues to be resolved, what good will burying the information do?

I don’t know whether Benny is safe or not. Silver is pretty non-toxic to people at low levels, and so I would doubt whether Benny presents a problem if used sensibly. But you always have to think a little more carefully when it comes to things kids could put in their mouths. (And it’s not just cuddly toys – check out Rob Aitken’s recent blog for the low-down on silver colloids). What I find more concerning is how hard it’s getting to track the use of nanomaterials in products like this.

Benny is the latest in a series of products where “nano” has mysteriously disappeared from the marketing information. That makes it difficult for consumers to make informed choices. It prevents a clear picture emerging of where engineered nanomaterials are being used (and in what quantities). It confounds attempts to study the potential impact of commercially relevant materials. And if problems do arise, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify the cause—think Magic Nano.

Nanotechnology has great potential, but its success will depend on trust and engagement between all stakeholders—including consumers. It’s hard to see how hiding the technology will achieve this. And ironically, the one think that consumers really really don’t like, is being kept in the dark.

If you’ll forgive the pun, perhaps it’s time for Benny to come clean.

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This post was first published on the SAFENANO blog in December 2007

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One Response to Benny the Bear, and the case of the disappearing nanoparticles

  1. […] the case of Benny the Bear—a soft toy using nano-silver to give it antimicrobial properties (Benny the Bear, and the case of the disappearing nanoparticles). It appeared at the time that the manufacturer was being rather coy about the use of […]

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