This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about silver. For more information, you may call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-888-422-8737. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.
HIGHLIGHTS: Silver is an element found naturally in the environment. At very high levels, it may cause argyria, a blue-gray discoloration of the skin and other organs. This chemical has been found in at least 27 of the 1,177 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is silver?
Silver is a naturally occurring element. It is found in the environment combined with other elements such as sulfide, chloride, and nitrate. Pure silver is "silver" colored, but silver nitrate and silver chloride are powdery white and silver sulfide and silver oxide are dark-gray to black. Silver is often found as a by-product during the retrieval of copper, lead, zinc, and gold ores.
Silver is used to make jewelry, silverware, electronic equipment, and dental fillings. It is also used to make photographs, in brazing alloys and solders, to disinfect drinking water and water in swimming pools, and as an antibacterial agent. Silver has also been used in lozenges and chewing gum to help people stop smoking.
What happens to silver when it enters the environment?
Exposure to high levels of silver for a long period of time may result in a condition called arygria, a blue-gray discoloration of the skin and other body tissues. Lower-level exposures to silver may also cause silver to be deposited in the skin and other parts of the body; however, this is not known to be harmful. Argyria is a permanent effect, but it appears to be a cosmetic problem that may not be otherwise harmful to health.
Exposure to high levels of silver in the air has resulted in breathing problems, lung and throat irritation, and stomach pains. Skin contact with silver can cause mild allergic reactions such as rash, swelling, and inflammation in some people.
Animal studies have shown that swallowing silver results in the deposit of silver in the skin. One study in mice found that the animals exposed to silver in drinking water were less active than unexposed animals.
No studies are available on whether silver affects reproduction or causes developmental problems in people.
How likely is silver to cause cancer?
No studies are available on whether silver may cause cancer in people. The only available animal studies showed both positive and negative results when silver was implanted under the skin.
The EPA has determined that silver is not classifiable as to human carcinogenicity.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to silver?
Silver can be measured in the blood, urine, feces, and body tissues of exposed people. 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 doing these tests, they cannot tell whether any health effects will occur.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The EPA recommends that the concentration of silver in drinking water not exceed 0.10 milligrams per liter of water (0.10 mg/L) because of the skin discoloration that may occur.
The EPA requires that spills or accidental releases of 1,000 pounds or more of silver be reported to the EPA.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) limits silver in workplace air to 0.01 milligrams per cubic meter (0.01 mg/m³) for an 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also recommends that workplace air contain no more that 0.01 mg/m³ silver.
The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) recommends that workplace air contain no more than 0.1 mg/m³ silver metal and 0.01 mg/m³ soluble silver compounds.
The federal recommendations have been updated as of July 1999.
Carcinogenicity: Ability to cause cancer.
Milligram (mg): One thousandth of a gram.
National Priorities List: A list of the nation's worst hazardous waste sites.
Soluble: Capable of being dissolved in water.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 1990. Toxicological Profile for silver. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
ATSDR can tell you where to find occupational and environmental health clinics. Their specialists can recognize, evaluate, and treat illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances. You can also contact your community or state health or environmental quality department if you have any more questions or concerns.
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-32
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1-888-42-ATSDR (1-888-422-8737)