Silver-Induced Disease

серебро
© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Having silverware at home was at all times regarded as a sign of prosperity and luxuriousness. Kitchen utensils made of precious metal symbolised that their owner was of blue blood, which is somewhat surprisingly not a figurative expression. Often people who had expensive silver services turned blue literally.

Back in ancient Greece, miners digging for silver could notice a strange metamorphosis happening to their bodies. Occasionally, their skin turned blue or blue-grey. No one thought at the time that this change in appearance could have anything to do with silver. On the contrary, the precious metal was believed to possess some miracle healing properties. Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, suggested silver drops be used for making skin patches. He thought that wounds would heal a lot faster if exposed to silver. Cyrus the Great, the first Persian empire reigning 559–530 BC, used to drink water solely from silver jugs, hoping thus to improve his health. In the 11th century, Avicenna fed his patients with silver chips mixed with an egg. The medieval scientist did not seem bothered that the whites of his patients' eyes acquired an ominous hue.

серебро
© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Rumours about the bactericidal and healing properties of silver spread in the Middle Ages. Hence it was commonly used for manufacturing kitchenware. Silver utensils soon turned into a symbol of aristocracy, a must-have for nobility to have at their homes. This coincided with an increase in the number of cases relating to the shift in skin colour. Earlier, only factory employees experienced such health issues. However, from then on, people owning silver cutlery also started suffering from the same symptoms.

серебряная шкатулка
© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Medicine advanced, and it was discovered that the mysterious phenomenon was nothing more than a disease called argyria (also known as argyrosis). This condition occurs in people who ingest or inhale silver or its compounds in large quantities over a long period. The most dramatic – yet irreversible – symptom of argyria is that the skin turns blue or blue-grey. Once the colouration of skin has begun to change, no cure can help reverse the process. As argyria usually results from exposure to the metal, people who work in factories that manufacture and process silver products can become argyric. Silver-based products may also cause argyria if used at home uncontrollably.

Probably the most famous 'blue-blood' of the 21st century is Paul Karason from California, the US. His entire skin gradually turned blue after he took a homemade silver chloride colloid and used it in an attempt to treat his health problems.