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Widening Use of Silver Microbicides Raises Several Sets of Concerns

Silver is an age-old, effective microbicide, but one whose commercial use is growing way too rapidly, says Samuel Luoma of the University of California, Davis. Consumer products, including socks, underwear, towels, toothbrushes, paper towels, teddy bears, combs for pets, and food containers, are among the many objects now being embedded with silver nanoparticles to render them microbially resistant. The antimicrobial potency of silver makes it particularly valuable in hospitals and other health care settings, adds Simon Silver of the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC). However, they and other experts now point to concerns over silver nanoparticles leaching from such products into the environment plus a collateral concern that a backlash to its high use in consumer products could lead to severely restricted uses in health care settings. Silver is now being fashioned into nanoparticles, a change that accentuates its antimicrobial properties, according to Luoma, who recently completed amonograph on this subject for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "It is also among the most toxic of the metals to plants like phytoplankton, as well as to invertebrates and fish," he says. "Picture a silver nanoparticle at the cell membrane. It can release silver ions immediately to transporters into the cell. One reason they are such strong toxins to prokaryotes is that a lot of [their vulnerable] machinery is in the cell membrane."

For all its toxicity to microbes, how much a threat silver nanoparticles pose to public health and the environment is not known, according to Luoma. Before the photographic industry became environmentally conscious during the 1970s, use of black-and-white film development procedures routinely released large quantities of silver particles into wastewater and then the open environment, Luoma points out. Thus, he and others began to study silver and its effects in the San Francisco Bay. Although these researchers tracked the collapse of the bivalve population, which formed much of the base of the fish and bird food webs, "we did not study the microbial community," he says.

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