Conflicting opinions about the risks of antibacterial silver

​Silver is used increasingly often as a bacterial agent in clothing and hygiene products, but there are conflicting opinions as to its effects on people and the environment. According to researchers at Chalmers and Gothenburg University, the use of environmental assessment methods could clarify the points of this debate.

In an article in the Journal of Cleaner Production, Dr Rickard Arvidsson of Energy and Environment and Max Boholm, project assistant at Global Studies (GU), describe how the Swedish debate is characterized by a long list of conflicting arguments. According to the opposition, the silver products damage health, environment, water and sewage. Supporters highlight silver’s antibacterial properties and the environmental benefits achieved by less washing. And in the middle of this difficult confrontation are found the consumers and decision makers.

‘The foundation of my research is that we should learn from history and not use any substances before we know the consequences. What’s interesting in this case, is that the various actors are reasoning from two completely different perspectives but from exactly the same values; product quality, environment, health and sewage treatment.

Rickard Arvidsson‘Both sides probably think they have sufficient knowledge about antibacterial silver, but the fact that opinions are so divided indicates that more research is required,’ said Rickard Arvidsson.

Present environment and sustainability assessment methods, such as life cycle assessment, substance flow analysis and risk assessment, ought to be able to throw new light on this conflict. The methods could handle several aspects of the debate and thus provide further information concerning the risks of using antibacterial silver. However, these methods do not cover the issue of antibacterial resistance.

‘The environmental assessment methods I use do not include that kind of problem, i.e. resistance in micro-organisms. Method development and further research would be necessary in order to provide society with answers as to whether antibacterial silver causes anti-biotic resistance or not.’

Karin Ljungklint
Translation: MT International/Nigel Ford
Photo: Oskar Mattsson and Shutterstock

Study facts
The study is based on a text analysis from the following sources: news media, governmental agencies, local government, non-government organisations and companies. More than 150 articles, reports and web pages (from 1991 until June 2012) have been studied. Research has been financed by the Swedish Research Council Formas.

Facts about antibacterial silver
Silver is a basic element used for, among other things, jewellery and electronics. Antibacterial silver is used to prevent microbial growth in different applications. Traditionally, it is used within health care as a bacterial agent for certain kinds of injuries. Recently, it has begun to be used within a number of consumer products, such as bus handles, flat-nosed pliers, exercise clothing and dog food bowls. New research indicates it is probably silver ions that are released from the silver that provide the antibacterial effect when coming into contact with bacteria.

Rickard Arvidsson, Energy and Environment, Chalmers University of Technology,, 031-772 21 61

Max Boholm, Global Studies, Gothenburg University,, 031-786 5624

Page manager Published: Tue 25 Mar 2014.