by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation
While at the movies this weekend, I saw a preview for the upcoming movie version of The Smurfs. Since the Smurfs are made up characters, the likelihood of seeing one in Central Park (the premise of the movie) is pretty slim. However, there is always a chance you may meet someone with Argyria, also known as Smurf Syndrome.
Argyria, a medical condition that can result in a person’s skin turning blue, is caused by overexposure to chemical forms of the element Silver (Ag). Prolonged ingestion and absorption of high levels of silver can lead to this condition, and because silver accumulates in the body, any resulting blue coloration is permanent.
So why would people ingest silver? The most common intentional reasons are because of silver’s known toxic effects on bacteria, viruses, fungi and algae. As far back as 300 B.C., Greeks and Romans knew about the benefits of using silver. Hippocates, the “father of medicine” wrote about the element’s healing properties, and Roman soldiers who ate their food off of silver plates found they were generally healthier and lived longer than those companions who did not. Settlers heading west across America in the late 1800s and early 190ss would put silver dollars in their milk pitchers to keep the milk from spoiling during the long treks between towns.
Silver’s antimicrobial properties come from the ionized form, Ag+ (ionization is the process of converting an atom or molecule into an ion by adding or removing charged particles, like electrons). The silver ion forms strong molecular bonds with substances in the human body that bacteria use for respiration, including sulfur, nitrogen and oxygen. When Ag+ bonds with these molecules, bacteria are unable to use them and eventually die.
The development of antibiotics almost wholly replaced using silver to treat infections because antibiotics were easier to regulate in dosage and they did not come with the risky side effects of using silver, including turning blue. Argyria turns your skin the blue because the accumulated silver particles trapped under your skin darken when they’re exposed to light, the same way silver is used to develop photographs.
There are still people who self-medicate with silver today, the most common being ingesting collodial silver, a suspension of silver particles in water. However, the FDA and the EPA do not recommend self-medicating with silver, as there are potential health risks and it’s far too easy to overdose and end up looking like a perfect extra for The Smurfs.