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The Effects of Nanosilver on the Environment

Nanosilver is hailed by many scientists for its anti-bacterial properties, yet its effect on the environment and our health is the subject of a much wider debate.

Nanosilver is widely used because of its antimicrobial properties, which kill bacteria when activated via oxidation. Yet evidence is mounting about the detrimental effects nanosilver can have on the environment and on the human body if it enters the food chain.

What is Nanosilver Used For?

Nanosilver is silver like that you would find in jewellery but made into tiny particles that are invisible to the naked eye. The particles measure between 1 and 100 nanometres and are so small that it would be difficult to see them even under a microscope. By comparison, a human hair measures around 40,000 nanometres wide.

All sorts of consumer products contain nanosilver, from socks and toothbrushes where they are used to combat odour, to paints and food containers.  Many face coverings also contain nanosilver (excluding the Virustatic Shield) which have, of course, been churned out en-masse since the COVID-19 pandemic. The upshot is that nanosilver is becoming even more prevalent in the products we buy as consumers.

How Nanosilver Kills Bacteria

Adding nanosilver to products has purported benefits as there is some evidence that it controls the growth of micro-organisms on surfaces and in solutions. Silver ions are thought to punch holes in bacterial membranes rendering them unable to perform their most basic functions. Yet, where nanosilver is effective at reducing the spread of infection and viruses, it does come with some concerning side effects.

Why is Nanosilver Bad?

Despite being used so widely globally, there are many environmental effects that cannot be overlooked with nanosilver, leading some experts to warn that not enough is being done to protect the environment from harm.

The Purdue University conducted a study which showed that suspended nanosilver was toxic to certain types of fish and could be lethal to them. The study showed that the particles were so small that they were able to penetrate through egg membranes and move into embryos within one day.

The effects on plants and soil are equally shocking, with plants containing nanosilver producing four times more nitrous oxide, an extremely potent and dangerous greenhouse gas that is 296 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), further conducted a test with worms, in which they were exposed to two types of soils. One was a control soil, and another was contaminated with nanosilver. The worms actively avoided the contaminated soil, swerving towards the soil that was not contaminated, proving it was a much more inhabitable environment for them to be in.

What both of these studies suggest is that we should be paying much more attention to the safe disposal of products that contain nanosilver if we want to protect the environment.

Another worry is that the particles make their way into the food chain through wastewater treatments, as they are extremely toxic to many aquatic organisms and can have an unknown knock-on effect to the whole ecosystem.

Wastewater plants release nanosilver into the environment through effluent discharges to land or water, or through sewage sludge, which separates into a different tank for periodic removal.  Over the past few years, the concentration of silver has been increasing to a level that makes it harder and harder to dispose of. Ultimately, most silver that is used in products ends up making its way to wastewater plants and it is not biodegradable.

Most alarmingly, a study in 2010 showed that nanosilver is toxic to human stem cells and becomes increasingly toxic the longer it is stored. It has the potential to damage and kill developing nerve cells and can potentially pass from a mother to a developing foetus, causing a dangerous interference with DNA.

Nanosilver Use in Face Coverings

Many disposable and widely used surgical face masks use a nanosilver blend in order to protect their users from catching harmful diseases and viruses such as COVID-19, but there is much debate about whether the benefits of nanosilver outweigh the environmental costs.

Talking about the use of nanosilver in face coverings, Lucy Hope, development director at Virustatic Shield said:

“Collectively we have a duty to take a serious look at the resulting impacts of using metals such as copper and silver in textiles. Rather than focusing solely on the anti-microbial properties of silver or copper and applying them to new products, research into more sustainable and non-toxic alternatives is urgently needed. We need to be especially mindful when metal particles are used within the fibre matrix of facemasks or face coverings, because when this material becomes wet – through breath humidity or condensation or washing –  the metals can leach out. This has untold problems when these textiles are in use next to the nose and mouth.

“The unique Viruferrin ™ coating on the Virustatic Shield is the result of over 10 years development and research and has been proven to be up to 98% effective against pathogens, including COVID-19. This coating is a naturally occurring protein and does not contain nanosilver or other nano metals. It is already applied to all of our face coverings and doesn’t come with negative side effects, unlike many of the mainstream antiviral face masks.”