Health effects of silver
Silver is one of the basic elements that make up our planet. Silver is rare but occurs naturally in the environment as a soft, "silver" colored metal Because silver is an element, there are no man-made sources of silver. People make jewelry, silverware, electronic equipment, and dental fillings with silver in its metallic form. It also occurs in powdery white (silver nitrate and silver chloride) or dark-gray to black compounds (silver sulfide and silver oxide). Silver could be found at hazardous waste sites in the form of these compounds mixed with soil and/or water. Therefore, these silver compounds will be the main topic of this profile. Throughout the profile, the various silver compounds will at times be referred to simply as silver.
Photographers use silver compounds to make photographs. Photographic materials are the major source of the silver that is released into the environment. Another source is mines that produce silver and other metals.
The natural wearing down of silver-bearing rocks and soil by the wind and rain also releases large amounts of silver into the environment.
Silver that is released into the environment may be carried long distances in air and water. Rain washes silver compounds out of many soils so that it eventually moves into the groundwater. Silver is stable and remains in the environment in one form or another until it is taken out again by people. Because silver is an element, it does not break down, but it can change its form by combining with other substances. Over time it may change from the form first released, to metallic silver, and then back to the same or other compounds. The form it is found in depends on environmental conditions.
Exposure to silver
Most people are exposed daily to very low levels of silver mainly in food and drinking water, and less in air. The silver in these sources is at least partially due to naturally occurring silver in water and soil. Skin contact and breathing in air containing silver compounds also occurs in the workplace. Other sources of exposure include the use of silver in medicines, and in activities such as jewelry-making, soldering, and photography. Exposure from everyday use, such as wearing jewelry or eating with silver-coated flatware, is not expected to result in silver being taken into the body.
Silver levels of less than 0.000001 mg silver per cubic meter of air (mg/m³), 0.2-2.0 parts silver per billion parts water (ppb) in surface waters, such as lakes and rivers, and 0.20-0.30 parts silver per million parts soil (ppm) in soils are found from naturally occurring sources. Silver compounds are also found in groundwater and at hazardous waste sites throughout the United States. Drinking water supplies in the United States have been found to contain silver levels of up to 80 ppb. Surveys show that one-tenth to one third of samples taken from drinking water supplies (both groundwater and surface water) contain silver at levels greater than 30 ppb.
Pathways for silver in the body
Silver may enter your body through the mouth, throat, or digestive tract after eating food or drinking water that contains silver, or through your lungs after breathing air containing silver. It can also enter your body through your skin when you put your hands into solutions containing silver compounds, such as those used in photography, or when you come in contact with silver-containing powders. Silver is also known to enter the body when medicines containing it are taken or applied to the skin or gums. Generally, much less silver will enter the body through the skin than through the lungs or stomach.
Because many silver compounds dissolve in water and do not evaporate, the most common way that silver may enter the body of a person near a hazardous waste site is by drinking water that contains silver or eating food grown near the site in soil that contains silver. Silver can also enter the body when soil that has silver in it is eaten. Most of the silver that is eaten or breathed in leaves the body in the feces within about a week. Very little passes through the urine. It is not known how much of the silver that enters the body through the skin leaves the body. Some of the silver that is eaten, inhaled, or passes through the skin may build up in many places in the body.
Health effects of silver
Since at least the early part of this century, doctors have known that silver compounds can cause some areas of the skin and other body tissues to turn gray or blue-gray. Doctors call this condition "argyria." Argyria occurs in people who eat or breathe in silver compounds over a long period (several months to many years). A single exposure to a silver compound may also cause silver to be deposited in the skin and in other parts of the body; however, this is not known to be harmful. It is likely that many exposures to silver are necessary to develop argyria. Once you have argyria, it is permanent. However, the condition is thought to be only a "cosmetic" problem. Most doctors and scientists believe that the discoloration of the skin seen in argyria is the most serious health effect of silver.
Exposure to dust containing relatively high levels of silver compounds such as silver nitrate or silver oxide may cause breathing problems, lung and throat irritation and stomach pain. These effects have been seen in workers in chemical manufacturing facilities that make silver nitrate and silver oxide. One man developed severe breathing problems shortly after working with molten silver. Skin contact with silver compounds has been found to cause mild allergic reactions, such as rash, swelling, and inflammation, in some people.
Studies of the health effects of silver in animals commonly use silver nitrate. Doctors and scientists assume that effects seen using silver nitrate in animals will be very similar to effects in humans caused by any silver compound. While this is likely to be true, it is still possible that some silver compounds will be more harmful, or toxic, than silver nitrate.
One animal study suggests that long-term exposure (125 days) to moderately high levels of silver nitrate in drinking water may have a slight effect on the brain because exposed animals were less active than animals drinking water without silver. Another study found that some of the animals that drank water containing moderately high levels of silver for most of their lives (9 months or longer) had hearts that were larger than normal. It is not yet known whether these effects would occur in humans. There have been suggestions in some occupational studies in humans that silver can cause kidney problems; however, more people exposed to silver need to be studied to find out if silver causes these effects.
No studies of cancer or birth defects in animals from eating, drinking, or breathing in silver compounds were found. Therefore, it is not known if these effects would occur in humans. One study of animals who drank silver compounds mixed with water for most of their lives found no effect on fertility. Another study found that reproductive tissues were damaged in animals after they received injections of silver nitrate. However, the tissue recovered even while the animals received more injections of silver nitrate. Tests in animals show that silver compounds are likely to be life-threatening for humans only when large amounts (that is, grams) are swallowed, and that skin contact with silver compounds is very unlikely to be life-threatening.
Silver does have helpful uses. For example, silver nitrate was used for many years as drops in newborns' eyes to prevent blindness caused by gonorrhea, and it is also used in salves for burn victims. Some water treatment methods (including water filters) also use a form of silver to kill bacteria.
Silver exposure levels with harmful effects
Reports of cases of argyria suggest that gram amounts of a silver compound taken in medication in small doses over several months may cause argyria in some humans. People who work in factories that manufacture silver compounds can also breathe in the compounds. In the past, some of these workers have become argyric. However, the level of silver in the air and the length of exposure that caused argyria in these workers is not known. It is also not known what level of silver causes breathing problems, lung and throat irritation, or stomach pain in people. Studies in rats show that drinking water containing very large amounts of silver (2,589 parts of silver per million parts of water, or about 2.6 grams per liter) is likely to be life-threatening.
There is very little information about health effects following skin contact with silver compounds. Argyria that covers the entire body is not seen following skin contact with silver compounds, although the skin may change color where it touches the silver. However, many people who have used skin creams containing silver compounds such as silver nitrate and silver sulphadiazine have not reported health problems from the silver in the medicine. In one animal study, a strong solution of silver nitrate (81 milligrams silver nitrate per liter of water) applied to the skin of guinea pigs for 28 days did not cause the animals to die; however, it did cause the guinea pigs to stop gaining weight normally. It is not known if this would happen to people if they were exposed the same way.
Medical tests for silver
There are reliable and accurate ways of measuring silver in the body. Silver can be measured in the blood, urine, feces, and body tissues of exposed individuals. Because urine and blood samples are easy to get, these fluids are most often used to find out if a person has been exposed to silver in the last week or so. Silver builds up in the body, and the best way to learn if past exposure has occurred is to look for silver in samples of skin. Tests for silver are not commonly done at a doctor's office because they require special equipment. Although doctors can find out if a person has been exposed to silver by having blood or skin samples examined, they cannot tell whether any health effects will occur.
Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the Agency for Toxic Substance And Disease Registry. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the Agency for Toxic Substance And Disease Registry should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.