Friends of the Earth has renewed its calls for a ban on the use of nano-silver in consumer products, after a new a UNSW study has found that overexposure to silver nanoparticles can cause potentially harmful bacteria to rapidly adapt and flourish.

The study, published in the journal Small, found that nano-silver was effective in suppressing some bacteria (such as E. coli), but that its presence initiated the unexpected emergence, adaptation and abnormally fast growth of other bacteria species (in this case, a type of Bacillus bacteria).

This is the first study that has demonstrated that a widely occurring bacteria can adapt quite rapidly to the antimicrobial action of nano-silver. It raises serious concerns that the widespread use of nano-silver in consumer products could be helping to breed superbugs.

The overuse of antimicrobials by Australians is contributing to a crisis that the World Health Organisation has labelled ‘one of the greatest threats to human health today’.

In Australia more than 7000 deaths each year are caused by bacterial resistance to antimicrobials. It is now widely understood the widespread overuse and misuse of antimicrobials is an important contributor to antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in bacteria.

The medical community has been turning to nano-silver as an antimicrobial of last resort to prevent the infections of superbugs. But at the same time, many companies have seen a marketing advantage in including nano-silver as an ingredient in everyday products such as socks, underpants, toothbrushes and cleaning clothes.

Health experts agree the widespread use of nano-silver in consumer products such as socks and fridges will further increase the problem of superbugs. We should restrict the use of this powerful antimicrobial to hospitals, where it’s needed most.

A Senate Inquiry is currently investigating the problem of antimicrobial resistance and is due to report its findings on 6th June.

In response to the Inquiry, a broad coalition of organisations have launched a statement calling for urgent action to tackle the looming antimicrobial resistance (AMR) crisis. The statement, endorsed by the Public Health Association of Australia, Friends of the Earth, The Australia Institute and the National Toxics Network calls for a range of measures including restricting the use of nano-silver to clinical settings.