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The use of silver nanoparticles in all kinds of products may not be as headline-grabbing as it was in 2006, but with the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it's time to take another look.

December 17th, 2007

Super Bugs and Nanosilver

Super bugs may sound like the latest greatest action hero for kids. But it's not. I'm talking germs here; specifically, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. MRSA for short - a staph infection that's resistant to antibiotics - also know as the super bug.

Over the past few months, I've noticed quite a number of headlines about MRSA. What made the news was the fact that it was making its way out of the hospital setting (to which it's largely been confined) and into the broader community; most notably schools. Or at least, that's what was making headlines.

This was compounded by the release of a study (in the fall of 2007) conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, who found that, during the time period from June 2004 through December 2005, just 26% of new MRSA cases reported took place in hospitals; 58% occurred in the broader community. I know the numbers doesn't quite round up and that's because they couldn't specify origin in 16% percent of the cases.

According to the CDC, about 95,000 people developed a serious MRSA infection in 2005 (basically affecting 32 out of every 100,000 people) or point zero three percent. So it isn't a hugely rampant problem, but it is statistically relevant enough to take notice, and it is spreading.

Even veterinarians are seeing an increase in cases of MRSA in pets; mostly dogs and cats. And don't go pointing the finger at fluffy or fido - they're getting it from US. It's one of the rare instances where people are giving an illness to their pets.

It's widely known that the over-prescribing of penicillin and other antibiotics over the past decade or so is partly to blame. That's why there's been a concerted effort in recent years to not prescribe antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, although old habits die hard. Handwashing, simple as it may be, is also a great line of defense.

It probably doesn't come as a surprise that MRSA is commonly found on water faucets; but did you know it's also widely found on cell phones and computer keyboards?

Don't get too grossed out, but in 2006, Clorox released a study which found that computer keyboards have 256 times more bacteria than a toilet seat - and desks have 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat. Washing computer mice and keyboards with soapy water isn't really an option. So, how about a surface that basically sterilizes itself?

It's available. And has been for thousands of years. Silver. The ancient Greeks and Romans are known to have put silver coins into drinking vessels to keep water fresh; and silverware apparently help prevent some from getting the plague. Flash forward a couple centuries, and silver is still being used to efficiently kill bacteria.

Back in 2006, there was a lot of buzz about the use of nanoscale silver as an anti-microbial. It was big news at the time; mostly due to rising concerns about the possible environmental impact of silver nanoparticles. The buzz died off late in the year when the Environmental Protection Agency announced that any product claiming to use silver for anti-microbial purposes must prove that it was safe to be released into the environment.

Now that it was no longer a "hot" new-fangled approach, but rather, one of many products regulated by the EPA, it shouldn't come as a surprise that, throughout 2007, I saw very little news about the use of silver in products. Instead, the focus seemed to be on the increased number of people being affected by MRSA. Which brings us back to the use of nanosilver. Let's face it, with the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, we've sort of backed ourselves into a corner.

However, some might argue that we're focused on being too clean, which can be problematic in and of itself. A lot of bacteria are good for us. In fact, along those lines, a number of companies are now focused on adding good bacteria into food. It's a newly emerging trend called probiotics; I haven't found a nanotech connection just yet, but if I do, I'll be sure to talk about it in more detail at a later date.

When it comes to bacteria that make us sick, handwashing is a great first step, but it can only go so far. And if we're dealing with bacteria that won't respond to pharmaceuticals, then we need an additional line of defense.

The good news is that the nanosilver products a number of companies are offering are indeed approved for use by both the EPA (these are products that come into contact with food and/or water), as well as the FDA (for medical products). The solutions range from threads coated with silver, to actual silver nanoparticles, and going even smaller, silver ions.

Today is the beginning of a multi-part series on this very topic. I'll have these companies on the show to talk about their technological approach, how their products work, and where they're being used. First up, Agion Technologies and their use of silver ions in zeolites.

This article is a transcript of the Bourne Report Podcast #73.

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2007 Bourne Research LLC. All rights reserved.

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