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Silver and Copper: Age-Old Antimicrobials

Silver and Copper: Age-Old Antimicrobials

Silver and copper have been used for millennia as antimicrobial elements in cooking, healing and storage in homes.  There are certain elements that give credence to health claims, and silver and copper are two of them.  Let's dig into the “why?”!

Silver has long been considered an anti-microbial because of the way it reacts with bacteria.  Silver has positively charged ions that fight bacteria in three ways:

  1. The ions bind to bacterial cell walls and block transport of substances in and out of the cell.
  2. The ions bind to DNA inside the bacteria cell, disrupting cell division.
  3. The ions block the bacterial respiratory system, destroying energy production.

A very interesting paper of moderate complexity was published in The Journal of Applied Microbiology in June 2017.  It listed many different applications of colloidal and more recently, nanosilver.  Colloidal silver is small particles of silver suspended in a liquid.  A “colloid” is a liquid that evenly distributes certain particles within it. (medicalnewstoday.com)  Colloidal silver has received much scrutiny because of possible negative side effects of taking too much silver, which are argyria, a permanent blue discoloration of the eyes and/or skin, poor absorption of some drugs, such as certain antibiotics and thyroxine, and even fatal poisoning. (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)  However, with the advent of nanoparticle silver, the aforementioned paper cited studies where silver can be super-helpful in fighting infections due to biofilms, upper respiratory tract infections, fungal eye infections, gastrointestinal diseases, drug-resistant bacteria, blood platelet disorders, deep wound and bone infections, and even some cancers.  Silver really could be an untapped miracle drug, however more research on dosing and application is needed.

Copper is only slightly less effective at microbial control than silver, but it is certainly less costly.   Copper vessels were used in ancient times to purify water, the benefits of which are proven by this study, Storing Drinking-water in Copper pots Kills Contaminating Diarrhoeagenic Bacteria.  “Research in recent decades has revealed copper’s effectiveness at killing a wide range of microorganisms including Escherichia coli, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Listeria monocytogenes, influenza A virus, and Clostridium difficile, among other microbes.” (cheminst.ca)  Why?  Copper “basically punches holes in bacteria.” (Titus Wong, infection control lead of Vancouver Coastal Health and a microbiologist with the University of British Columbia faculty of medicine).  The positive ions of the copper disrupt or break the bacterial cell membrane and enter the cell to interfere with the bacterial cell DNA.  

What are we doing with this knowledge?  Hospitals are increasingly replacing high-touch surfaces such as lightswitch plates, IV poles, bedrails and grab bars with copper.  Mass transit systems are experimenting with using copper surfaces on grab poles.  In order to make the copper more durable and economical for these surfaces, researchers are experimenting with copper nanoparticle-infused polymers.  In a study on waiting room chairs in Chilean hospitals, pure copper was found to reduce the bioburden of surfaces by about 85%, while plastic polymer with copper can be about 70% effective.  They have also developed new forms of pure copper; by dramatically increasing the porous surface area of copper, one team found it killed 99.99% of golden staph bacteria in just two minutes on the new copper surface, while it took four hours to kill 97% of the bacteria in four hours on a standard copper surface (RMIT University in Australia).  This is important news in the fight against antibiotic-resistant super bugs. 

You and I as the average consumer may not see these new surfaces for years, but there are plenty of ways that we can add these bacteria-busting elements to our daily environment:

  • TotalClean is an all-natural, all-purpose cleaner with a proprietary formula based on iodine and copper.  It not only cleans surfaces, but removes odors in the air as well.  Offered here on HypoAir and tested by our team, this cleaner is powerful but non-toxic and fragrance-free, a winning combination!
  • Used in many homes in India and the Far East for centuries, copper water vessels have antimicrobial properties.  Contact time is essential; storing water in a copper dispenser or urn for 16-48 hours will give the copper time to disinfect the water. Make sure that the copper used in the dispenser has no toxic additives; beware of cheaper models.  This one is made from pure copper with a stainless-steel spigot.  For more advice on using copper water, check out this article from Healthline.com.
  • According to WorkSafe Iowa, 80% of infections are transmitted by touch.  In order to counteract all those germs, you could consider replacing some of the most-touched surfaces, like doorknobs and cabinet knobs, with copper or copper alloys like brass and bronze.  Cuverro is the only class of solid surface materials registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to actively kill bacteria.  In addition, this patented surface is also easier to maintain than pure copper because it does not tarnish. 
  • Copper cookware is pricey, but its superior heat conduction quality makes it great for producing candies and delicate dishes like fish and sauces.  Just don’t overheat it or use it with acidic foods like tomatoes or vinegar, as that will cause unlined copper pots to release too much copper into the food.  
  • Our top recommendation for silver used in cleaning products is Norwex cloths.  These unique microfiber cloths lift and trap dirt and bacteria, and the microfiber contains microsilver, which is a safe form of silver that does not penetrate the skin.  The cloths also contain a substance called BacLock to keep the cloth itself from harboring bacteria.  Simply spray water on a surface like countertops or windows, wipe with a Norwex made for that purpose, and get a clean surface without chemicals!  We highly recommend starting with their Window and EnviroCloths. 
  • We as home and business owners do have access to some of these space-age composites that use silver to disinfect surfaces continually.  Hexis SAS, a French company, manufactures a laminate film called PureZone that can be applied to many different surfaces, and comes in gloss, matte, textured leather and textured wood finish.  It is long-lasting (durable for 5 years on an indoor vertical surface) and continually releases silver ions when in contact with humidity in the air, to be 97% effective against viral strains like SARS-CoV-2.  Houston-based distributor TintDepot.com carries the transparent matte version, which allows the original surface to be visible but reduces glare for less eye strain while working.
  • Silver is used in dressings for wound care in the hospital setting, and is available over the counter for first aid, provided it’s not used too frequently.  Such products used continually over a long time have the potential to build up and cause local agyria, which turns the area blue:
      • A gel spray is ideal so that the wound, once cleaned, is not contacted directly, and the container remains uncontaminated for future use too.  It’s a super-convenient application that stays put.

      • Bandages with silver will also continually release silver ions to suppress infection and speed healing.  

  • Colloidal silver (nanoparticles of silver suspended in water), while controversial as a nutritional supplement, can be used as an all-purpose cleaner for many different areas of the home.  This article educated me on how to make it more cheaply than buying it, and where to use it.
  • Silver may be one of the original “hypoallergenic” metals for jewelry, alongside gold of course.  Besides being non-toxic to skin, it actually kills microbes that can infect a new piercing or any small cuts or abrasions in the skin.  It also has a cooling effect, so that cuffs or chains worn on heat transfer points of the body such as the neck, wrists and ankles act as a heat sink to transfer heat quickly to the air and help the wearer avoid heat exhaustion.  Silver nanoparticles also have an anti-inflammatory effect.  Even though transfer of silver nanoparticles may be minimal with jewelry, why not wear silver jewelry in places where inflammation affects you most: your hands, wrists and/or neck?
  • Although it does take a little extra maintenance, the health benefits of eating with real silverware are many.  Based on the evidence we’ve already discussed, it inhibits bacterial growth, which is great on the fork and spoon going into our mouth, but it also keeps food fresher longer, which means that food stored on silver trays or in silver dishes retains its flavor and health benefits for longer.  For these reasons, many people recommend using silver utensils when feeding babies and young children, whose immune systems are still under development.  When used regularly (several times a week to everyday) and cared for properly, silver actually tarnishes less than when it is stored away in a drawer for “special occasions”. 

Hmmm…in this age of pandemic and superbugs, maybe it’s time to resurrect real silverware and copperware!