Metal compounds kill microorganisms by combining with sulfhydryl groups of enzymes and other proteins, thereby interfering with their function. Unfortunately, most metals at high concentrations are too toxic to human tissue to be used medically. Silver is one of the few metals still used as a disinfectant. Dressings containing silver sulfadiazine are used to prevent infection of burns. For many years, doctors were required by law to instill drops of another silver compound, 1% silver nitrate, into the eyes of newborns to prevent opthalmia neonatorum, an eye infection caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which is acquired from infected mothers during the birth process. Drops of antibiotics have now largely replaced use of silver nitrate because they are less irritating to the eye and more effective against another genitally acquired pathogen, Chlamydia trachomatis. ■ Neisseria gonorrhoeae, p. 644 ■ Chlamydia trachomatis, p. 646
Compounds of mercury, tin, arsenic, copper, and other metals were once widely used as preservatives in industrial products and to prevent microbial growth in recirculating cooling water. Their extensive use resulted in serious pollution of natural waters, which has prompted strict controls. The FDA is currently examining the list of antiseptics and other products that contain mercury compounds, such as mercurochrome, thimerosal, and phenylmercuric acetate, in order to evaluate their safety.
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