Silver is a noble metal that has been used in jewellery and cutlery for hundreds of years. In the electronic industry it is used for its high electrical conductance capacity and in the medical industry, the antibacterial activity of silver is utilized in wound plasters and bandages, implants, creams and lotions. Nano-scaled silver is more effective compared to coarse silver as it has a higher surface area and can be more easily distributed in the various media. The clothing industry is using silver in textiles for its anti-bacterial properties and when applied into plastic packaging materials it helps to keep the food fresh for longer periods of time. Other applications of the noble metal silver are paints, cement and carpets.

 

How can I come into contact with this material?

silver cutlerysilver cutleryOnly small amounts of silver are released from silver cutlery and taken up through the food. The wearing of silver jewellery presents no reason for any health concern as normal healthy skin is a good barrier preventing any uptake. Silver inhibits effectively the growth of bacteria making it an excellent ingredient for medical applications. It supports the healing process of the skin e.g. in case of wound dressings for burns or creams used to treat certain skin conditions such as neurodermatitis or skin eczema. It has been shown that silver particles can be taken up by the skin via this route. The usefulness of silver in clothing items (e.g. socks) is controversial. A major question is whether it makes sense to invest the limited silver reserves in low-odour socks since it has been shown that silver can be washed out from these textiles and will end up in our wastewater treatment plants.

Silver is also approved as a food colouring agent (known as E174) to colour product surfaces. Labelling of food items is mandatory in cases of sugar-, confectionary and bakery products. Plastic packaging materials sold in the US or in Asia could contain silver particles which may then change over to the covered food items and thus enter the human body. Silver included in spray applications can also be breathed in.

 

Is there any risk from this material to humans and the environment?

Silver has bactericidal properties and if silver nanoparticles are administered in small amounts they will not cause any harm to the human body. However, the use of silver in high amounts and over a long period can cause a grey colouring of the skin and organs. It is important to notice that silver is especially toxic to certain wildlife animals such as fish.

Since the production volumes and applications of silver nanoparticles are constantly increasing greater quantities of silver nanoparticles enter the environment ending up for example in sewage sludge of wastewater treatment facilities. In general metals such as silver cannot be degraded in the environment.

 

Conclusion

Small amounts of silver nanoparticles are non-hazardous for humans. Only high concentrations of silver nanoparticles could be expected to cause adverse health effects in the human body. At present there is no evidence of risk to the environment but the hazard potential for the environment is likely to be higher as some animal species, notably fish are especially sensitive to silver. However, the German Environmental Agency (UBA) recommends adjusting the upper limit for silver content of sewage sludge upon which it is not allowed to be used on cultivated fields. Some countries, e.g. Switzerland, already have installed a legal ban for the usage of sewage sludge on cultivated fields.

 

By the way...

  • The threshold limit value (TLV) for silver (in silver-containing compounds) allowed to be inhaled (breathed in) at the workplace is 0,01 mg/m3.

 

 

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