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Silver-Treated Sportswear is a Threat to Aquatic Life, Says Study

For years now, apparel brands have been infusing everything from sports bras to boxer briefs with silver particles to thwart microbes and ward off the dreaded “gym funk.”

A study by Swedish scientists, however, claims that activewear treated with antibacterial silver poses a toxic threat to living organisms in lakes and seas.

Laboratory analyses published by Svenskt Vatten, also known as the Swedish Water and Wastewater Association, revealed that between 31 percent to 90 percent of silver “leaks out” of clothing and into sewage after just 10 washes.

Researchers tested 15 garments, all of which touted stink-fighting properties. Nine of the 15, they found, contained silver. Of the nine, eight were treated with Polygiene, a Swedish technology that uses silver salt, rather than nanosilver, to stymie the growth of fungi and odor-causing bacteria.   

At the same time, the organization discovered that several clothing brands, including Adidas, Add Nature and, failed to adequately describe the nature of their silver-containing garments in their labels, which, per European Union (EU) law, must include the term “biocidal product” and the name of the treatment.

No matter its mode of application, however, antibacterial silver leaching from treated textiles is now the “largest known source of silver in effluent treatment plants,” the report asserted.

Though silver is not known to be harmful to humans, the trend bodes ill for aquatic and sediment-dwelling creatures. The EU classifies silver as a biocide substance, meaning it’s “very toxic” to aquatic life with long-lasting effects. Similarly, silver is included on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) list of priority pollutants subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act. In a 2010 report, the EPA stated “clear evidence that silver, and in particular nanosilver, is toxic to aquatic and terrestrial organisms” as well as mammal cells in laboratory research.

Svenskt Vatten is asking consumers to avoid clothing treated with silver.

“They put in place big future problems in the environment, and because the silver is washed out, it’s completely useless to buy these clothes,” Anders Finnson, the organization’s environmental expert, said in a statement.

Silver can also contribute to antibiotic resistance, the report added, pointing to a 2015 Swedish Chemicals Agency paper that affirmed a strong link. 

Brands must start phasing out silver-treated textiles and stop the problem “at its source,” Finnson said. “It’s a matter of a sustainable future.”