The October 27, 2009 edition of Wall Street Journal ran a story called “Metals: Panacea or Placebo?” by science reporter Melinda Beck that put a skeptical eye on claims of medical and health benefits to the use of metals (copper, silver, gold, titanium, and magnetic items) as adornments and “dietary ‘supplements.” The same week, a blog post by Steven Novella at Science-Based Medicine discussed the recently published “Therapeutic effects of magnetic and copper bracelets in osteoarthritis: A randomised placebo-controlled crossover trial” from Complementary Therapies in Medicine (abstract), which documented a controlled test on the efficacy of magnetic or copper bracelets to help arthritis and other ailments. Unsurprisingly, any benefits from the different bracelets were no better than placebo. Readers are referred to his excellent write-up for a discussion of the study and links to other peer-reviewed work. In it, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a dollar-sucking entity foisted on the taxpayers by Congress, admits that it has found no evidence for beneficial effects on fibromyalgia, migraines, or other painful conditions, from the use of metal bracelets. The idea of people volunteering to put large amounts of metal and metal solutions into their bodies intrigued me, so I reviewed the current state of Metal Medicine.
A couple years ago, Paul Karason became briefly famous as the “blue man” whose skin turned blue due to argyria — a condition where silver collects in the skin and organs and reacts with light, much as the silver emulsion on film. He dosed himself with silver solutions that he created in his home, a procedure easy for anyone who has taken a basic high school chemistry class. “I did it all on my own,” he said. “Originally, I just saw an ad for a colloidal silver generator in a magazine and the picture stuck in my head like a song might stick in your head. I had a friend who had severe petroleum poisoning, and I heard colloidal silver was helpful for that, and that’s how I started.” In the same interview, he admitted that his original health problem, dermatitis, was not cured by ingesting silver, although he continued to drink silver solutions daily. Proponents of colloidal silver claim that ingesting silver can cure or treat colds, flu, cancer, diabetes, herpes, shingles, and HIV/AIDS, among other ailments. Silver solutions, such as silver nitrate, have been used as anti-microbial disinfectants for many years, and frequently used as eyedrops for newborns to prevent conjunctivitis (although most former uses have been supplanted by newer, less toxic treatments). The FDA has repeatedly stated that ingesting silver is not beneficial, is not even safe, and can cause kidney damage.
Of course, one man’s woo is another man’s scam. A company called Purest Colloids charges that Karason was not using the correct silver (he’s ingesting silver in an ionic solution instead of pure silver in a colloid form), and that the stories about his condition are a hoax on the American people. From their web site:
The Blue Man charade demonstrates once again that the mass media cannot be trusted to report anything that even resembles a truthful “news” story. All “news” today is propagated with an agenda just like the phony economic statistics put out the U.S. government.
In other words, a conspiracy to make people afraid to take silver supplements. Oh, yeah.
Silver is not the oldest “magic metal.” Magnets have been tried as treatments for thousands of years. Randi has written extensively about the Q-ray and magnetic bracelets, and those scams continue to be perpetrated on the public with the usual blather about aligning one’s auras, improving the blood flow by acting on the iron in hemoglobin, and other wishful thinking. Dozens of websites sell these items, and while I do not wish to drive traffic to their sites, it’s interesting to poke around to see the prices, claims, and testimonials. “I thought I could save money,” says one alleged testimonial, “by buying another magnetic bracelet from another company advertising them at half the price with 5000 gauss. Well, let me tell you, I was scammed! When that ‘other’ bracelet came in, I checked the magnetic strength by seeing how strongly it attaches to a piece of metal compared to your bracelet…Thanks for a great product!” To view the going prices for lumps of metal, see for example Ace Magnetics or AACopper, which warns you again those cheap Chinese copper bracelets that don’t leave a green ring on your wrist. By doing a search of various magnet proponents, you’ll find you can now buy magnetic mattress pads, cushions, hair brushes — and even styling gel! I suspect if you spend $30 for magnetic hair spray, you are going to see some effects. (These items are ubiquitous on the internet, and a new company pops up every time one is shut down. For instance, in 2002, Quackwatch reported that the California Attorney General sued European Health Concepts for selling magnetic mattress pads and cushions. They’ve been out of business since then, but Googling ‘magnetic mattress pad’ turned up a dozen sites, selling pads running upwards of $800.)
Magnets are cheap to manufacture, but for a classy scam you need something more exotic. Gold has an ancient history as a nearly-magical elixir to provide immortality. For many years, gold salts were used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, although the toxicity of the metal caused mouth sores, kidney damage, and occasionally, problems with the bone marrow’s ability to make new blood cells (a side effect that killed one of my engineering professors). One supplier, Optimox, carries colloidal gold in tablet form. Although their site states “For use as a source of colloidal metallic gold without medical or health claims,” the subsequent copy clearly implies that colloidal gold can detoxify the liver, act as a anti-oxidant, control joint pain and swelling, and promote resistance to infection. (Since my 50 hours of college chemistry is nearly 30 years old, I won’t embarrass myself with a critique of all their claims about redox reactions, but invite knowledgeable readers to comment.) Another alarming claim, among many, is that taking 30 mg of gold per day for one month increases IQ scores by 20%. In rough terms, that means a month’s worth of tablets could take a person of average IQ into the top 5-10% of the population.
A more recent trend in metal therapies is titanium, which started in Japan. Generally, companies market titanium bracelets or pendants, claiming that the material enhances the flow of energy and creates a positive charge that cancels out pain’s negative charge — i.e., neutralizing the pain. To my knowledge, this particular benefit of titanium has not made it into the anesthesiologist’s tool bag. Some sites sell titanium items to relieve stress or back pain, and feature testimonials from professional athletes. One company, Rob Diamond, explains how the bracelet causes ions in the blood to push against vessel walls, causing heat, which improves circulation and carries away toxins. One of the biggest hawkers of titanium products is Phiten, founded by a chiropractor in Japan. This company has taken the snake oil to a new level, infusing titanium particles into lotions, clothing, shoes, and bedding. Testimonials from Olympic athletes and baseball players spread the word, enforcing the placebo effects of the items. They also market a product called “G Water” which they claim will suppress fatigue of the brain when you spray it on the head.
As the author of the WSJ article remarked “Perhaps if consumers became smarter, they would be more skeptical of such claims.”