Colloidal Silver, Smurfs, and Ebola

Colloidal silver is back! It competed in the ring of science and was thoroughly clobbered. If it had any dignity, it would have stayed down for the count and admitted defeat; but like some bizarre whack-a-mole or zombie it keeps stumbling back to its feet, wanting to fight again. This myth that refuses to die is now being promoted as a cure for Ebola, on the basis of nothing more than wishful thinking.

A Myth with a Silver Lining

There is often a grain of truth behind a myth. The grain here is that silver ions kill bacteria in vitro. But as Rose Shapiro famously reminded us in her book Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All, you can kill cancer cells in a lab with a flame thrower or bleach, but that doesn’t mean doctors should use flame throwers or make patients drink bleach. Silver is useful in medicine for external use (e.g., silver sulfadiazine cream for burns) and to disinfect surfaces and drinking water. But when swallowed, it is not only useless but harmful.

Naturopaths use colloidal silver. It’s available on the Internet or you can buy a generator to make your own at home, using a silver bar purchased from a coin dealer and parts from Radio Shack.

Promoters make bold claims: we are all suffering from “silver deficiency,” the depletion of silver from our soil has caused a drastic increase in immune system disorders, colloidal silver has been used successfully in the treatment of 650 diseases, it functions as a superior second immune system in the body. Testimonials abound for practically every known disease, but I couldn’t find any scientific evidence that it has ever been used successfully to cure even one disease.

The Natural News website calls it “an antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral miracle.” Mercola.com claims that some silver products are harmful but that “true” colloidal silver is harmless and effective for treating infections including MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Their evidence? A measly four studies that are not listed on PubMed and that only show that it kills MRSA in cell cultures and on surfaces in the lab; there are no studies in humans. There is hype about “nano silver,” but that’s only a new name for the same old colloidal silver.

Creating Smurfs

By 1843 doctors had recognized that silver causes argyria, an irreversible discoloration of the skin. Rosemary Jacobs’ doctor prescribed colloidal silver nose drops to treat her allergies back in the 1950s. The doctor naïvely believed fraudulent ads from manufacturers and salespeople and apparently hadn’t read the warnings in the medical literature. By age 14, Rosemary’s skin had turned slate gray. Despite cosmetics and dermatologists, she remains strikingly gray today. Her appearance has caused serious problems in her life; it cost her jobs, she was refused lodging because people thought she had a contagious disease, and nurses in a hospital misinterpreted her color as an indication of a heart attack.

Jacobs has dedicated her life to investigating colloidal silver and spreading the word. Her website rosemaryjacobs.com provides a wealth of information with references. She says, “In searching that literature for thirty years I have never found any evidence that silver in a person’s body benefits anyone other than the quack who sold it.”

Rosemary turned slate-gray, but Karl Karason looked more blue than gray. He was known as Papa Smurf; with his striking white hair and beard, he looked a lot like the cartoon character. If you want to look like a Smurf there are better options, like the entertainers in the Blue Man Group with their removable blue body paint.

The Scientific Consensus

Every reputable organization that has evaluated colloidal silver has rejected it. Even the CAM-friendly National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) warns against it: “Scientific evidence does not support the use of colloidal silver to treat any disease, and serious, irreversible side effects can result from its use.” In addition to argyria, they report that it may cause kidney, liver, or nervous system problems and can interfere with absorption of some drugs.

The FDA has issued an advisory that colloidal silver is not safe or effective for treating any disease or condition. In 1999, the FDA prohibited the sale of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs containing silver. A few prescription drugs contain silver, but they are all for topical application, not for oral ingestion.

The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database says silver has no known physiological function. They rated it “likely unsafe” and found no credible evidence that it was effective for any condition.

In the US and Australia, regulators have ordered colloidal silver manufacturers to stop making false claims. One company in Australia had to pay court costs and provide refunds to customers.

Ebola Quackery

Ebola is exotic, deadly, and has no known treatment. It is not surprising that the recent outbreak has caused an epidemic of fear. When fear takes hold, rational thought flies out the window. We want to believe, need to believe, that we can protect ourselves from Ebola. Quacks and charlatans come out of the woodwork to calm our fears with false promises. As infectious disease specialist Dr. Mark Crislip says, “There seems to be a belief in the pseudo-medical world that if you just did everything right, ate the right food, took the correct supplements, and used the CAM du jour you would have a perfect immune system and never get an infection. Wrong.”

All sorts of remedies are said to cure Ebola or prevent it by strengthening your immune system, including selenium, magnesium, intravenous vitamin C, bicarbonate of soda, vitamin D, iodine, slowing the breathing down with a Breathslim breathing device, medical marijuana, infrared therapy, glutathione, coffee, fermented soy, homeopathic spider venom, genistein (found in soy), garcinia kola, estradiol, essential oils, Chinese herbs, turmeric, gingko, zeolite, Hulda Clark’s infamous Zapper, alkalinized and/or ionized water, elderberry zinc lozenges, medicinal mushrooms, probiotics, avoiding tap water/non-organic/GMO foods, drinking green vegetable juices and fruit juices, cinnamon bark, Rife therapy, and kogel mogel eggnog.

Peter Chappell claims he can treat Ebola with healing sound by playing the violin. Natural News published instructions for a homemade homeopathic Ebola vaccine made from the spit or blood of an Ebola patient (since contact with bodily fluids is how you get Ebola, this is obviously not a good idea). The ruler of the Igala Kingdom in Nigeria recommends bathing before 4:00 am with hot water and blessed anti-Ebola salt, and reciting verses from the Koran. Faith healing with laying on of hands is another great way to spread the disease. In Sierra Leone, a traditional herbal healer treated an Ebola patient, caught Ebola and died. At her funeral, numerous others were infected; eventually a total of 365 Ebola deaths were traced back to her. In the US, an entrepreneur was inspired by an episode of the Dr. Oz show to invent “Ebola-C shots” as an energy drink; he reportedly grossed $480,000 in the first 2 weeks.

Homeopaths sent teams to Africa, wrote letters to government officials, and circulated a petition begging the World Health Organization (WHO) to distribute homeopathic remedies to control the epidemic. A New Zealand politician signed the petition, was publicly ridiculed for it, and later admitted that signing it was “probably pretty unwise.” Chiropractors have claimed that Ebola can be prevented and cured by restoring spine alignment so innate intelligence can “whack the offending pathogen immediately.” Rotarians planned a humanitarian mission to Sierra Leone to train doctors there to provide ozone therapy. Natural News sold family pandemic protection kits for home use.

The FDA sent warning letters to three companies that were making fraudulent claims about Ebola cures. One, Natural Health Solutions, was selling a $24.95 bottle of Nano Silver for the “cure, treatment and prevention for Ebola virus.” The other two, DoTERRA and Young Living, were selling “essential oil” Ebola cures derived from cinnamon bark, peppermint, sandalwood, eucalyptus, and rosemary.

The Natural Solutions Foundation complained that authorities had blocked shipments of Nano Silver to Sierra Leone. Mike Adams, the Health Ranger, calls that a double standard, since the government allowed patients to be treated with ZMapp. He asks “How exactly is it that an unproven pharmaceutical is okay to use as a treatment for Ebola, but an unproven herb or natural remedy is completely unacceptable and possibly illegal?” There’s a simple answer: ZMapp is expected to work because it contains antibodies to the Ebola virus.

Ebola Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories range from improbable to insane: there’s no such thing as Ebola; it’s all a lie intended to limit our freedom and control us with restrictive laws. It’s a plot to kill Africans. Ebola turns people into zombies, which somehow benefits big government. Big Pharma and government plan to force an Ebola vaccine on everyone. President Obama wants to infect white people and make the US more like his “home” in Africa. Ebola is a plot to divert attention from vaccine fraud at the CDC. Ebola will be intentionally introduced into the US by ISIS terrorists. Those sick people don’t have Ebola; they have malnutrition and damaged immune systems due to wars, toxins, and poor sanitation. Ebola can be transmitted through the air. (This idea ignores particle size and scientific knowledge about disease transmission.) The US government holds a patent on Ebola, so it must have originated the disease. (It patented a different strain, back when organisms could be patented, as a preemptive strike so private companies couldn’t patent it and withhold it from other researchers.) Colloidal silver is not a cure for Ebola or for anything else. Yet a Google search for “Ebola silver” turned up 139,000,000 hits. Good grief!

This article was originally published as a SkepDoc column in Skeptic magazine.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.