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Published: Monday, 10/31/2005

Turning silver: Use of some dietary supplements causes skin to change color

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FINDLAY Some doctors specialize in heart disease, others in treating cancer. Dr. Bruce Bouts of Findlay is the guy to turn to if you or someone you know turns silver.

Not just kind of silver. No, so silver or gray that someone might mistake you for the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz.

Known scientifically as argyria, the condition is quite rare. Those with argyria turn silver, gray, or grayish blue, usually after swallowing liquid silver over a period of time.

Not many people have heard of it and few doctors know much about it. Except for Dr. Bouts, an internal medicine physician who says he usually spends his days looking at sore throats or checking prostates.

I guess I m one of the few people who has an actual honest to god interest in it. It s very obscure, Dr. Bouts said.

His interest in the condition happened by accident. In 1981 he was a pharmacy student working at Lima Memorial Hospital and encountered a patient there who was completely gray. The woman had developed argryia from a nasal spray she d taken years previously.

Dr. Bouts eventually went back to school at what was then called the Medical College of Ohio and got his medical degree, but he never forgot that silver patient. Fascinated by the condition, he began researching it.

He learned that silver has some anti-bacterial properties and that in medieval times people used silver flasks to store wine to help preserve it. In fact, he says some have speculated that the term "blue blood," used to refer to royalty, came from the fact that the rich - who used a lot of silver utensils or flasks - ingested silver particles and thus turned slightly blue or gray.

He discovered that argyria was far more common in the 1930s and 1940s, when liquid silver was touted as a cure for all sorts of ailments. In the 1950s, he estimates most physicians had at least one patient with the condition in their practice.

The condition became more rare as the practice of prescribing liquid silver fell out of favor among mainstream physicians, and today it's rarely seen. Those who have the condition usually developed it in childhood in the 1940s or 1950s, Dr. Bouts said.

For those with the condition, the process is pretty simple. Silver collects in the body and eventually the person can change color. The trigger? Sunlight.

Just like the silver in old photographs, once enough has accumulated, exposure to the sun can, for lack of a better term, cause a person with it in their system to "develop," according to Dr. Bouts.

And once that happens, there's not much that can be done.

"You're the tin man. It's permanent," Dr. Bouts said.

Some experimental therapies have been explored, including a laser treatment offered at the Cleveland Clinic, according to Dr. Jon Meine, a dermatologist at the Clinic. Dr. Meine said the treatment isn't used that often because so few people have argyria, but it's possible it could be tried more in the future.

Argyria is "pretty rare, but it's been increasing in the last several years because of the availability of [dietary supplements] with silver, so we're seeing more," he said.

Fortunately, argyria does not cause any other harmful health effects or shorten a person's life.

However, the embarrassment it causes can be overpowering.

"It's a big stigma," Dr. Bouts said. "You look like the walking dead. I had one lady, a patient who had it, she wouldn't let herself be photographed for 50 years."

One person with argyria who has spoken out about the condition is Rosemary Jacobs, a retired teacher living in Vermont. Ms. Jacobs developed argyria in the 1950s as a child when her family doctor told her to take some nose drops containing liquid silver to treat a persistent stuffy nose.

Now 63, Ms. Jacobs said she's accepted her condition, though earlier in life it was a major obstacle.

"The hardest thing was when I went for a job or looked for an apartment. They thought I had a contagious disease and I was about to die," she said.

For many years, Ms. Jacobs lived in relative obscurity. Then one day she was paging through a magazine and saw an advertisement for liquid silver drops, also referred to as colloidal silver. She thought liquid silver being touted as a medical treatment had long since gone away, and she was furious that someone was still trying to tout its alleged benefits.

She set up her own Web site, http://homepag

es.together.net/~rjstan/, to spread her message. She also complained to the Food and Drug Administration, but was told the FDA couldn't do much.

The FDA, though it has some regulatory oversight of dietary supplements, can't outright ban a product unless it causes serious harm. Nevertheless, the administration took comments from those about liquid silver and Ms. Jacobs submitted her testimony. It was then that she learned about Dr. Bouts, who had also submitted testimony opposing the sale of liquid silver.

"It's unbelievable to me that we're talking about this in this century, but it's still out there," Dr. Bouts said.

To prove his point, he shows two spray bottles of colloidal silver he purchased in health food stores. One, called "Colloidal Silver Spray," promises that it provides "powerful immune support." Another, "Potentized Liquid Silver," claims it can be used to treat "colds and flu," and "runny nose, sore throat, cough, headaches, stuffy nose, nausea, chills, and night sweats."

None of the claims are true.

In 1999, the FDA passed a regulatory rule that stated, in part, that products containing colloidal silver "are not generally recognized as safe and effective and are misbranded ... and the FDA is not aware of any substantial scientific evidence that supports the use of over-the-counter colloidal silver ingredients ..."

The FDA banned the sale of any liquid silver product making any health claims. However, it still allows sale of the substance as a "dietary supplement." Because of that - and the wealth of inaccurate information on the Internet - Dr. Bouts and Ms. Jacobs worry others may take liquid silver without knowing the side effects.

"So many people with argyria become recluses. It's so sad," Ms. Jacobs said. "[That's why] I've done everything I can to warn the public ... and Dr. Bouts, I think he's great. The fact that he's willing to speak out is fantastic, I don't know what other doctors are afraid of."

Contact Luke Shockman at: lshockman@theblade.com or 419-724-6084.



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