Wait. Aren’t we supposed to learn from our mistakes?
Well, apparently our failed love affair with antibiotics hasn’t taught us a darn thing, because it looks as if we’re once again setting ourselves up for a superbug catastrophe…not to mention a potential environmental disaster to boot.
A paper published just last month in the American Chemical Society’s journal Langmuir announced that scientists have developed a “killer paper” coated with silver nanoparticles (SNPs) that they say will help preserve foods by fighting the bacteria that cause it to spoil.
Frankly, I don’t share the scientists’ apparent glee over this “breakthrough”—and I’ll tell you why.
We’ve known for a long time now that ionized silver has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. It turns out that when you shrink it down to between 1 nanometer and 100 nanometers in size (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter…smaller than many viruses) it apparently becomes even more effective at killing microbes.
It’s for this reason that it’s used in a variety of optical and medical applications. And if its use were confined to such limited types of applications we might not have a problem.
But, of course, it isn’t.
Silver nanoparticles have been quietly added to an increasing number of consumer products, including, for example, odor-eating underwear, microbe-proof teddy bears, and bacteria-resistant household appliances.
Sure, at first it sounds like a wonderful idea.
Get dressed in your SNP-duds in the morning and be protected all day from getting the flu. Or use an SNP-coated kitchen appliance and hope that the nasty E-coli bug that hitched a ride in on the chicken you brought home for dinner will be history.
But, as they say, when something sounds too good to be true it usually is, and I’m afraid our blooming infatuation with SNPs fits the bill.
You see, just as the overuse of antibiotics and antibacterial products has spawned antibiotic-resistant superbugs like MRSA and C. diff, the overuse of silver nanoparticles may very well do the same. I shudder to think what deadly bacterium may lurk in our future if we start lining everything from our socks to our food packages with the stuff.
And, of course, we mustn’t forget that should we continue down this path all the food packaging, old clothing, and appliances that we add to our landfills every year will eventually be leeching SNPs into our soil and waterways. Talk about a disaster waiting to happen!
In fact, a team at Duke University has already demonstrated that silver nanoparticles can have a negative impact on plant life and growth. Who knows what the impact of the SNPs will be on fish and other aquatic life!
You know, it’s said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It looks as if with our blossoming use of SNPs we’re heading down the road toward madness, and it’s time we put on the brakes before it’s too late.
Personally, I think that the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.
"Sonochemical Coating of Paper by Microbiocidal Silver Nanoparticles," Langmuir, 2011, 27 (2), pp 720–726, DOI: 10.1021/la103401z
“Nanomaterials in the environment: The effect of realistic silver nanoparticle exposures on terrestrial ecosystem dynamics,” Ecological Society of America, talk led by Benjamin Colman, Duke University, August 4, 2010
"Silver Beware: Antimicrobial Nanoparticles in Soil May Harm Plant Life," Scientific American, August 9,2010