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Nanosilver hits the market in a big way

The teeny germ-fighters can be found in sheets, slippers and shavers. Are the products worth buying?

August 04, 2008|Margaret Woodbury | Special to The Times

Germ-conscious consumers are always looking for ways to increase their comfort level. In the 1990s, antibacterial soaps, lotions and potions saturated the marketplace. Now comes another germ-killing innovation -- nanosilver.

Silver, the metal, has long been used as an antimicrobial, killing germs by very slowly releasing silver ions that are toxic to bacteria. But now, via nanotechnology, silver can be revamped into minuscule particles a few ten-thousandths the diameter of a human hair.

These particles have even more potent germ-killing ability, because surface area increases dramatically at the nanoscale level, enabling those bacteria-toxic ions to spit out at a furious rate.

And by virtue of nanosilver's tiny proportions, almost anything can now be impregnated with silver. Today, you can find it in food storage containers, pajamas, kitchenware, bed sheets, plush toys -- placed there, so its marketers say, to kill 99.9% of germs.

A nanotechnology-tracking center (the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars currently lists that incorporate nanosilver, an estimate that other nanotechnology researchers feel may be low.

But some researchers, environmentalists and industry watchdogs are concerned that this flood of nanosilver into our lives and environment may not be safe or necessary. They express concern that nanosilver -- as yet poorly studied -- might make its way into human cells in a way that regular silver does not, causing toxicity, or that a wide use of nanosilver in consumer products could trigger development of silver-resistance among bacteria and complicate hospital care, where silver is sometimes used to keep germs at bay.

"There is nothing sinister about silver nanoparticles," counters Derek Bonsen, spokesman for AgActive, a British-based company that puts nanosilver into socks, towels, bed linens, underwear, face masks and T-shirts. "Silver has been used for antibacterial and hygiene purposes as well as for jewelry for thousands of years." Nanosilver's no different, Bonsen adds, except it has a far greater surface area and thus is a more potent antimicrobial.

More on the science and safety, Page 3.

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