The Nano-Silver Bullet Backfires

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In a new Friends of the Earth (FOE) report “Nano-Silver: Policy Failure Puts Public Health at Risk”, authors Dr. Gregory Crocetti and Ian Illiminato offer compelling new scientific research connecting the rapidly expanding use of bacteria-killing nano-silver particles in everyday products to serious health issues, from the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to increasing allergy rates.

The numbers of deaths caused by bacterial resistance to antimicrobials and antibiotics in hospitals is on a regular upward trajectory. Hospital-associated infections kill around 100,000 people in the U.S. and 150,000 people in Europe each year. The World Health Organization dedicated 2011’s World Health Day to the theme: “Antibiotic Resistance: No Action Today, No Cure Tomorrow” in an effort to raise general awareness about this problem. At the same time, we are experiencing an epidemic in allergic diseases and asthma in industrialized countries. Nearly 40% of children in Australia live with an allergy. In the U.S., the figures are even worse—more than 54% of all U.S. citizens test positive to one or more allergens and more than half of U.S. households have at least six detectable allergens.

The medical community uses nano-silver as an antiseptic and disinfectant aid in lining wound dressings and as coatings for devices such as catheters and stents. Professor Roy Kimble of the University of Queensland and director of burns and trauma at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Brisbane observed that: “The vast majority of burn surgeons in Australia use silver dressings.”

Professor Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Science Center and Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, noted the importance of safeguarding such clinical use: “At the moment silver is one of our last defenses against some of these bugs and microbes that are resistant to many other forms of antimicrobial agents. If we give the secret of our last best defense away, silver, it leaves us with very little else to kill these harmful agents… It literally is the silver bullet and I think we have to use it judiciously”.

Yet the use of nano-silver outside of the hospital has become widespread. According to FOE’s report “Examples of Nano-Silver Products Available Online or Within the United States,” nano-silver is now used in shoes so they will be “anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and odor resistant” and baby bottles to “act as an anti-bacterial deodorant and maintain freshness up to 99.9% without additional disinfecting by boiling and sterilization.” Food storage containers containing “nano silver technology” are advertised to “keep your foods fresher up to three times longer than conventional plastic food storage” and epilator hair removers use nano-silver to “inhibit the growth of micro-organisms on the head.” Since there isn’t mandatory labeling of nano-ingredients, it is impossible for either the public or regulators to know which products do or do not contain nano-silver. And no regulation has been passed in the U.S. to halt the widespread use of nano-silver in consumer products.

In an interview for the report, Dr. Samuel Luoma, emeritus at the U.S. Geological Survey and John Muir Institute of the Environment at the University of California, Davis, said that: “The biggest environmental danger with nano-silver and probably for human health as well is if hundreds of these products are used by millions of people. If it’s used wrong [nano-silver] and if it’s over-used, then you could indeed find resistance. There are a large amount of products with unknown and unproved effectiveness and unproven necessity—their presence on the market is a way of unnecessarily increasing risk. Putting yet another consumer product out to kill ‘germs’ is exactly the wrong thing. Germs are good for you. We actually need to promote the message that the immunologists are now putting out—that almost all germs are good for you. The more good germs you get exposed to the less bad germs and allergies you will have.”