— It's an old elixir in new packaging: silver.
People seeking alterative remedies are buying liquid silver dietary supplements in health food stores or surfing the Web.
"If they have some kind of bacterial infection and they don't want to take an antibiotic, they'll use silver," according to Richard, the owner of two health food stores in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Richard sells a line of products from a company called Invision and says if his customers did not want the product he wouldn't stock it. He says he also uses it himself and has never seen anyone have problems with it.
Dhyana Coburn is another who believes liquid silver can help fight some illnesses. She makes silver supplement for her own personal use and wrote a book touting the merits of the metal.
"Personally, I've used it to heal conjunctivitis and bronchitis," Coburn maintains.
Fueled by word of mouth and word on the Web, silver mixtures are part of the almost $20 billion that Americans spent on dietary supplements last year.
But there are problems with silver supplements.
Silver May Cause a Rare Skin Condition
"It has never been proven to work," notes Dr. Bruce Bouts, an internist in Findlay, Ohio.
Even worse, some users, like Rosemary Jacobs and Arline Gilliam, say their skin has actually turned a silvery color after ingesting it.
"I was convinced that it was supposed to be really good for me," Gilliam recalls. "I turned silver in 2002. It is devastating. I notice people staring at me all the time."
Jacobs and Gilliam suffer from a rare condition called argyria, which causes sufferers' skin to turn gray or bluish from ingesting silver.
Bouts has seen five argyria patients. He warns that those who ingest silver may be taking a risk without any potential health benefit.
"It won't help you keep healthy, ward off disease, prevent the common cold, find Osama bin Laden," he comments.
Legal to Sell
The federal government says it's "not aware of any substantial scientific evidence" that ingesting liquid silver products fights disease.
But, under federal law, if manufacturers avoid making health claims, it is all right to sell them as dietary supplements.
Yet on the Internet, some silver supplement sellers claim the product is effective against practically everything from AIDS and cancer to the bubonic plague. Another manufacturer claims silver has been successful against anthrax, diabetes, and even polio.
"It seems to me they have stepped over the line and they are again selling a dietary supplement that is a snake oil," argues Ted Parr, a former attorney for the Food and Drug Administration. Parr pointed out exaggerated claims were instrumental in focusing the FDA's attention on silver in the first place.
When Good Morning America went undercover to some of the stores in New York that sell the supplement, producers found salespeople commonly making health claims for silver supplements.
One suggested the supplements were "antiviral," while several others said they could be taken as a cure for colds. "Personally, I absolutely think it fights the common cold," said Jay Newman of Invision, which claims thousands of satisfied customers.
Newman acknowledges, however, there have not been any studies on the supplements yet.
"We make sure not to do any advertising that we have any evidence that our product has any health benefits," Newman adds. He says he is seeking funding to do a bona fide clinical study with his silver supplement. And he maintains no one has ever turned gray from his product.
But argyria sufferer Jacobs, a leading crusader against silver supplements, said her skin has been silver for 45 years. She believes the silver-laden nose drops she took as a child turned her normal skin tone to silver.
An experimental treatment to try to change the color left her with the blotchy look she has now.
For her part, Gilliam blames a particular brand of liquid silver dietary supplement as the cause of her skin going from normal to silvery-gray.
Argyria is considered permanent, but Gilliam is being tested to see if a laser treatment might help her skin be restored to its former hue.
"It's being treated like a big tattoo," said Dr. Martin Safko, a Las Vegas dermatologist who did the testing "I think this is going to be a successful treatment."
The company that manufactured the product used by Gilliam is out of business, but other brands of liquid silver supplement seem to be flourishing, online and in most health stores. Gilliam, who actually turned silver four years after she stopped using her supplement, is suing the manufacturer. The company denies responsibility for her condition.
Jacobs fears others may face the same adverse reaction to the supplement. "We don't know how many people are going to turn silver."
And Gilliam and Jacobs believe if silver really worked they should be two of the healthiest people on the planet.
But Jacob adds, "I had breast cancer at the age of 42. Silver hasn't helped me."