Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery Skepticism/critical thinking

Colloidal silver: The real Blue Man Group


People never cease to amaze me.

Sometimes it’s in a good way, when a person whom I would least expect to be capable of it does something really kind or brilliant. Sometimes it’s in a bad way. One of the bad ways people never cease to amaze me is how someone can continue down a path that has obviously caused them harm. I was reminded by this by a news story that’s been making the rounds of the media. I first saw it a couple of days ago on the local ABC affiliate, and it seems to be making the rounds of many affiliates nationwide. It’s the story of Paul Karason.

Paul Karason is blue, and an “alternative medicine” remedy, colloidal silver, made him that way:

A former Oregon man who’s skin is bluish-purple is hoping to put down roots here and find acceptance.

His name is Paul Karason, and he’s blue.

It’s not makeup or paint.

The 57 year old started making the transition from fair skin and freckles to this about 14 years ago.

“The change was so gradual I didn’t notice it. A friend I hadn’t seen in months saw me when I was at my parents’ house and said, ‘what did you do to your face.'”

What Paul did was use a substance called colloidal silver.

Made by extracting silver from metal, into water with an electrical current, and drinking it, it’s billed as something that will cure just about everything that ails you.

Paul swears by it.

“After it turned your skin blue, your still drinking it?”

“Yeah, but much less,” said Paul.

What Karason has is clearly a case of argyria, a known complication of chronic use of colloidal silver. Indeed, he has perhaps the worst case I’ve ever seen. His skin really is a silvery-blue color, and the video above gave me a rare opportunity to impress my wife. When the preview for the story came on, with a brief shot of Karason, I piped up that he had clearly been using colloidal silver, which turned his skin blue. Of course, it helps that I had come across this phenomenon before. There is, for example, the case of Rosemary Jacob, who also has a case of argyria, but not quite as bad. Still, it’s bad enough, as these photos show. She had to get dermabrasion done in order to lighten the tone of her skin, but she still looks far from normal.

Colloidal silver is touted as a “super antibiotic.” That credulous idiots like über-quack Mike Adams enthusiastically embrace it, touting it for practically any infection with a disclaimer to have a naturopath supervise (as if that would prevent argyria):

In this sense, colloidal silver is a lifesaver: When all else fails, it can beat infections presumed unbeatable. It is under these extreme conditions that patients may justifiably consider using colloidal silver internally — but only under the direction of a qualified health practitioner such as a naturopath.

AIDS-related pneumonia due to staphylococcal, pneumocystis, streptococcal, klebsiella and fungal infections may also warrant internal use of colloidal silver. These types of pneumonia are very difficult to fight with traditional antibiotic treatment; moreover, people with weakened immune systems, such as acquired immune deficiency syndrome, are especially prone to them. For a weak immune system, these types of pneumonia are sometimes unbeatable, making alternative measures a necessity. “Dr. Marchial-Vega had considerable clinical experience with a colloidal silver preparation that contains between 20 and 25 parts of silver per million parts of water. This preparation has proven effective in patients with HIV. In the hospital, the therapy is administered by a special nebulizer as well as orally,” reports Dr. James Howenstine in A Physician’s Guide to Natural Healing Products that Work.

This is, of course, a load of efflux from one of Mike Adams’ colon cleanses. In reality, colloidal silver is so bad that only the most deluded devotees of “alternative” medicine believe it to be anything but risk without benefit. Even most naturopaths eschew it. Still, quacks keep touting this stuff. The rationale usually given to is a classic case of making an unjustified leap to a conclusion based on inappropriate use of data. Just because colloidal silver inhibits bacterial and fungal growth in cell culture does not mean that drinking colloidal silver suspensions will fight infection in the body. Jacob gets it right when she writes:

Colloidal silver (CSP) is not a new alternative remedy. It is an old, discarded traditional one that homeopaths and other people calling themselves “alternative health-care practitioners” have pulled out of the garbage pail of useless and dangerous drugs and therapies, things mainstream medicine threw away decades ago.

The same is true about so many so-called “alternative” medical therapies. As I pointed out before, it’s extremely rare for such remedies ever to go “extinct,” regardless of how ineffective they are. Even useless remedies with significant side effects (like colloidal silver) seem to persist.

Men like Paul Karason suggest why:

Actually Paul doesn’t believe drinking this potion caused the discoloration. He believes it happened because he rubbed it on his face to treat a skin problem.

But a medical condition called Argyria has been linked to such discoloration since the days when silver solutions were used as antibiotics.

Mr. Karason may be entitled to his “beliefs,” but he is not entitled to his own facts. He may “believe” that the colloidal silver didn’t turn his skin that shade of grayish-blue, but it’s quite clear that it did and that his skin will continue to get bluer and bluer as long as he keeps using his favored remedy. Denying it won’t change it, nor will undergoing chelation therapy, as one of the more breathtakingly idiotic commenters after the story suggested.

But it’s not just men like Mr. Karason. There are even more credulous and ignorant defenders of colloidal silver, people like Will Fitzpatrick, who writes risibly paranoid rants like this:

The reason we hear so much about the “danger” of Argyria is not because it is likely to occur by use of colloidal silver but because it is the only charge its detractors can come up with. Colloidal Silver is the worst nightmare possible to its detractors. Who are the detractors of colloidal silver? Let’s look at the cast of characters. In 1938, the medical and pharmaceutical industries finally got the congress to pass the law they had so long lobbied for. I am not going to debate the usefulness of this legislation which mandated formation of the Food and Drug Administration and took over regulation of what is today over 1/3 of the US economy (including food). There are pros and cons and this debate has been addressed thoroughly for many years in other forums. What has evolved from its formation is a consortium of strange bedfellows. If an FDA employee can please those he regulates in the drug industry while he is in his position at the Agency, he will have a good job waiting when he retires. It is very similar to the explanation of why Pentagon procurement officers end up as high ranking officers in the defense industry. Follow the money trail. It is not difficult. It is quite transparent as a matter of fact. The FDA/Pharma ties have been well established in congressional hearings in recent years, so I won’t go over that territory again here. This relationship then, defines one class of the detractors of colloidal silver (and other alternatives to allopathic medicine), the FDA bureaucrats. They have been slowed but not stopped by recent legislation such as DSHEA, The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. These career bureaucrats, motivated by the big money to be reaped at their future employers have so abused their power in violation of the letter and intent of the DSHEA that they were boldly admonished by Senator Dan Burton in a senate hearing recently. A summation of that letter can be found here:

Another group of detractors of colloidal silver and other alternative medicine products and treatments is the self appointed, vigilante quack watchers. They have taken it on themselves (so they would have you believe) to watch out for the interests of the “American Consumer” to protect them from dubious “cures” and products which would steal their money and keep them from seeking “legitimate” medical treatment. It seems like a noble cause until you delve into their background, methods and cohorts. The most notorious of these “witch-hunters” is Stephen Barrett, MD. Ah, you say, he is a doctor! Well, he was a doctor until he gave up his license some years ago. Actually, he was a psychiatrist, a doctor of the mind, hardly a valid qualification for the crusade he has taken up. His wife is a real MD according to information on his website so don’t be concerned that he has no other visible means of support. Also, he authored and co-authored several books of anti-alternative medicine. He became the darling of the medical industry in the 1980’s with several awards for his books and articles attacking products and alternative modalities which have now been vindicated and even embraced by most of mainstream medicine. Chiropractic, Acupuncture, and the use of vitamins and minerals are among them. With most of his enemies vindicated, he crusades on to find more effective alternative treatments to demonize and destroy. Colloidal silver has become one of his favorite whipping boys in recent years with his willing accomplices, Rosemary Jacobs, FDA, FTC and the press.

In other words, never mind all those blue people. Never mind doctors have known for several decades that argyria is a complication of the prolonged use of colloidal silver. Just keep believing.

And just keep opening your wallet to buy the stuff.

ADDENDUM: Steve Novella and Skepchick comment.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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