Section 1: Archives
Slivers of Silver For What Ails You?
by Greg Botelho
WASHINGTON -- Want to get rid of
germs? Mold and grime? Smelly feet?
A growing number of scientists and
businessmen say such a miracle substance exists, and in fact has
for millions of years: Silver.
Innovative technologies and approaches
have fueled an explosion of products taking advantage of silver's
antibacterial properties. Consumers today can buy clothes, disinfectants,
laundry machines and other items that utilize silver as an active
"People have found out you can
use [silver] far more effectively when you shrink it down,"
says Andrew Maynard, science adviser to the Project on Emerging
Nanotechnologies, a joint effort of the Woodrow Wilson International
Center for Scholars and Pew Charitable Trusts. "The range
is quite incredible. It's as if a lightbulb has suddenly gone
Though silver is generally harmless
to humans, environmentalists worry that excessive use of silver
may allow it to seep into the environment, kill small organisms
and disrupt the ecosystem.
"The projected uses are just
too broad," says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the
National Resources Defense Council. "It is being used around
the world in anything that you would want to kill bacteria ...
It's reckless [and] many of the uses are frivolous."
While hardly the only antibacterial
substance, Maynard says silver's ability to use multiple mechanisms
to target germs otherwise resistant to antibiotics makes it especially
effective -- and also may make it persist longer in the environment.
"There isn't a huge amount that
is unknown [about silver]," says Maynard. "Is there
any risk to the environment? That's a little bit fuzzier. There
are issues out there [for which] there aren't easy answers."
Miniscule slivers of silver
In recent years, scientists have discovered cost- and time-effective
ways to divide silver into miniscule particles, some just a few
nanometers across. This not only lowers the price to buy and reproduce
silver, but enhances its surface area, thus compounding its effectiveness.
"We're getting incredibly small,
[which] gives us unprecedented control," Maynard says. "You
can make it go a lot further."
The number of nanotechnology consumer
products is surging, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies,
which expects its inventory to surpass 500 such products this
spring. And silver leads the way, surpassing all other elements,
"It's not going to rival photography,
jewelry and coinage in terms of overall demand, but the demand
[for nanosilver] is growing," says Michael DiRienzo, executive
director of The Silver Institute, an industry trade group. "We've
known for centuries that silver has these special properties,
[but] only recently have they found how it works."
One of the most well known applications
is X-Static, which Noble Biomaterials president Bill McNally says
is used in 1,000 products -- from sportswear and socks to hospital
linens and military uniforms.
"Silver [is] antibacterial,
it's used in every burn care center, and it's naturally anti-odor
because it binds with anti-odor causative agents," said McNally,
who co-founded Noble 11 years ago and calls the company "the
pioneers of silver." "My mission was to create a product
line that allowed you to take advantage of all those attributes."
But the Food and Drug Administration
has not found evidence that products containing colloidal silver
are safe and effective. The agency targets companies that tout
the medical efficacy of silver products.
With concerns, recognition of potential
"Over-the-top" advertising of silver irks Sass. If silver
claims to kill microbes, she contends, it should be regulated
like a pesticide -- with steps made to prevent its infusion into
But DiRienzo says, "To single
out silver is unfair," given that it is viewed as less dangerous
than most other metals and is being used in microscopic quantities.
"We're encouraging the federal
government not to rush headfirst into regulations," he says,
adding the silver industry has worked with the Environmental Protection
Agency for decades and he doesn't oppose self-touting "germ
killers" registering their products.
That said, most scientists concur
that silver products hold significant potential. Even Sass, while
opposing "broad releases that lead to obvious exposure,"
has no qualms about "targeted, controlled, restricted and
important" uses, particularly medical applications.
For instance, silver ions are an
active agent in QuikClot, a wound dressing for severe bleeding
now being used by U.S. military forces and first responders. And
McNally notes X-Static has been incorporated into many medical
products, including hospital garments, sheets and bandages.
"Silver [provides] bacterial
protection from the worst of the worst, as well as the ability
to stimulate tissue growth," he said. "We have the ability
to save people's lives."
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