Liquid silver slashing in an arc - How silver kills bacteria

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Maybe you’ve heard that silver kills bacteria—but how, exactly? The answer is in this remarkable metal’s history. Turn over the rock of civilization, and almost invariably, silver stares back. The story of how silver kills bacteria touches on science, economics, and pirates. For many people, silver has unquestionably been more valuable than gold.

Better than Second Place

Silver has enjoyed a rich and complex history, at the center of advanced medicine, sanitation, international economics, and the arts. It’s even used to control the weather. In many respects, silver has been more important than gold.

Though we don’t know when it was first discovered, it was being mined as early as 4000 BCE, in Anatolia, or modern Turkey. Our earliest evidence in North America suggests mining started here around 100 CE.

Because of its abundance, we think of it as commonplace. But because it’s both common and remarkable, it made a perfect currency. Gold looks good, but if a citizen can’t collect enough to make pocket change, you can’t base an economy on it.

The Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Moors, and Byzantines all used it for money. In the Egyptian dynasties it was literally more valuable than gold. The Phoenicians took so much from modern Spain they had to replace their anchors with bespoke silver ones. Argentina even takes its name from it (argentum in Latin).

Today it’s used all over, from electronics and chemical equipment to pigments and cosmetics, and of course for more than a century, it was how fine art photographs were printed. Sailors have used it for centuries to sanitize water, and it’s perfect for eating utensils. Silver’s even used in cloud seeding, as silver iodide, to encourage ice or snow, or suppress hail or fog.

And of course, you can find it in our preferred product

How silver kills bacteria

Medicinal silver comes in two forms. First is “colloidal” silver, or microscopic particles in a liquid solution, usually water. Silver that’s been prepared this way can be used for deodorant, to treat pink eye, and in nasal spray, among others uses. Not glamorous, but a great reminder that there are natural remedies for most things.

Second is “ionized” silver, whose atoms have lost an electron. They’re out of balance, and hungry to bond.

By infusing products with silver, engineers take advantage of this imbalance. The cellular walls of nearby microbes are perfect for our silver ion, so it grabs hold and yanks, leaving the microbe with a hole in its side. Poor microbe never had a chance. We call this the oligodynamic effect. Amazingly, only certain microbes are affected by silver—the ones we don’t want around.

Dr. Gordon Pedersen, of the Silver Health Institute, describes it this way:

Recent research shows that stealing electrons from the walls of those unwelcome microbes is just the beginning. The silver ions then enter the bacteria’s bodies and pull more electrons from other bacteria they come in contact with. It’s like a magic bullet that can’t stop defending us.

The ultimate set-it-and-forget-it

If you’ve eaten with old family silverware, worn a recent hospital bandage or surgical mask, touched a chrome-colored door handle, or drank water at a hospital, you’ve already taken advantage of it. By leveraging what silver “wants” to do (like how we give flour to yeast to make bread), we have full-time antimicrobial protection.

And that’s necessary.

Just last November, a study found touch screens at eight McDonald’s locations across England had traces of fecal matter on them. It’s not practical to disinfect those screens between each use, so what is McDonald’s to do? A layer of ionized silver would have made a word of difference, for public health, and for McDonalds’ PR.

Silver requires no upkeep, has no significant odor, has no effect on beneficial organisms, jumps into action soon as it’s needed, and goes dormant when it’s done. With more surfaces being protected every day, we’re using silver as both an ancient and uniquely modern way to define the healthy standards we need for our emerging world.


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