What's the deal with colloidal silver?

March 14, 2008

Dear Cecil:

I recently listened to an audio tape called Dead Doctors Don’t Lie that espouses the glories of colloidal minerals as a source of longevity. On the tape, one Dr. Joel Wallach (a veterinarian turned naturopath) claims that these minerals cure all sorts of ailments that shorten the average lifespan, and one can avoid these ailments by ingesting high amounts of said colloidal minerals. What’s really going on?

What’s the deal with colloidal silver?

Cecil replies:

The deal, from the top: A colloid is a substance in which particles of one kind of stuff (generally too small to see sans microscope but larger than a single molecule) are dispersed throughout a medium of some other kind of stuff. Smoke is a colloid of solid particles in gas, for instance; whipped cream is a colloid of gas in liquid.

In the case of colloidal minerals, we're talking about tiny particles of inorganic solids floating in a liquid carrier, such as water. To make these mixtures, producers typically soak powdered shale in water for a few weeks, allowing trace minerals in the rock to leach out; the leachate is then bottled and sold as preventive medicine. Which minerals? You name it, according to the promotional literature: the ones we all know are good for us, like iron and calcium; more obscure but still necessary elements like selenium; and stuff from the far reaches of the periodic table, like ytterbium and osmium, whose importance to human health is at best unproven. The basic sales pitch is that all these elements used to be in our soil and are thus an essential part of our nutritional makeup, but centuries of agriculture have left croplands depleted, so anyone hoping to reach their potential healthwise had better make with the colloidal beverages pronto.

Now, I looked over a transcript of the Joel Wallach spiel you mention, Gary, and after a few paragraphs I was thinking: You listened to this whole thing? Wallach's doctors-are-killing-us-and-getting-rich-doing-it nonsense is piled so deep it's nearly impossible to evaluate his claims on their putative merits. How seriously can you take someone who argues that MDs are knowingly selling bad science to subsidize their fancy cars and real estate dealings, then turns around and claims the same cagey doctors are too dumb to avail themselves of the healthful treatments that would prolong their own lives? That's where the title comes from: Wallach insists, stats be damned, that physicians have a shorter life expectancy than average, and thus simply aren't credible on the topic of health. I don't know about you, but this sort of reasoning isn't destined to win me over.

The bottom line: There's currently no solid evidence that we need more of these minerals than we're already getting via food and/or vitamins. And if we do need more, there's no evidence that drinking shale Kool-Aid is the way to get them. Until some long-term peer-reviewed studies start suggesting otherwise, the FDA, the World Health Organization, et al. just aren't going to be too worried about folks not getting enough vanadium.

Silver mixtures are among the most commonly touted colloidal remedies, credited by proponents with everything from combating unwanted microorganisms to curing arthritis. And in some ways colloidal silver is an easier sell. Though silver isn't essential to the body's function, before penicillin its germ-fighting abilities made it a valuable ingredient in mainstream medical preparations, and it's still used in medicine today: silver sulfadiazine remains a common treatment for burns, and last fall the FDA approved a silver-lined ventilator breathing tube aimed at curbing the spread of pneumonia in hospitals. Tiny bits of gold, meanwhile, may turn out to have a number of important properties: gold colloid may in fact alleviate arthritis symptoms if injected in the afflicted spots, and gold nanoparticles might conceivably aid in locating and destroying tumors. (Sorry, boozehounds, Goldschl�ger won't help — flakes are too big, for one.)

None of this, you'll note, adds up to the proposition the colloidal-silver types are pushing, namely that chugging silver juice is good for you. Few studies suggest any health benefits from colloidal silver, and in 1999 the FDA ruled flat out that the stuff was not safe or effective for treating any illness known. (Some doctors had claimed it helped with things like bladder issues and acne, but the feds didn't buy these findings.) After learning that dairy farmers were dosing cows with colloidal silver as a treatment for mastitis, the FDA warned them it wasn't approved for animals either.

If there's no proven upside to drinking colloidal silver, what's the downside? Well, ingesting large doses may lead to coma or fluid surrounding the lungs, while prolonged exposure can result in the infamously eye-catching condition known as argyria, in which the sufferer's skin acquires a pronounced — and permanent — blue-gray hue. So unless you're a committed goth hoping to take your undead look to the next level, this is one health fad you might consider sitting out.

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