Feeling Blue Over Skin Color

For 40 years, Paul Karason of Oregon was fair-skinned, with freckles and reddish-blond hair.

Like most people who grow older, Karason's hair turned white. But that's not all that changed color. His skin is now a bright shade of blue.

Karason said he hadn't even realized it until an old friend came to visit.

"And he looks at me and he says, 'What have you got on your face?' 'I don't have anything on my face!'" Karason said. "He says, 'Well, it looks like you've got camouflage makeup on or something.' And by golly, he came in and he was very fair-skinned, as I used to be. And that's when it hit me.

Silver Poisoning

Karason's blue skin is the result of a rare medical syndrome known as argyria, or silver poisoning. He began using silver as a form of alternative medicine, not realizing what might happen to his skin.

It started a decade ago, when he saw an ad in a new-age magazine promising health and rejuvenation through colloidal silver.

"It was a daisy in a glass of water," he remembered. "The story was that the daisy had been desiccated before it was put back in the water. And [now] it looked like a fresh-picked daisy."

Karason sent away for a kit for making colloidal silver -- a home brew of microscopic silver particles suspended in water. For a while, he was drinking at least 10 ounces a day.

In those first months, he didn't notice a change in his skin color. But there were changes in his health.

"The acid reflux problem I'd been having just went away completely," he said. "I had arthritis in my shoulders so bad I couldn't pull a T-shirt off. And the next thing I knew, it was just gone."

As for whether it was the colloidal silver that had cured him, Karason said, "there's not the slightest doubt in my mind."

Does Colloidal Silver Work?

But there is plenty of doubt among mainstream doctors. These claims, they say, have no basis in science.

"The FDA has looked at it a long time ago and decided that there is no medical reason for taking colloidal silver," said Dr. Vincent DeLeo, head of dermatology at St. Luke's-Roosevelt and Beth Israel Hospitals in New York.

DeLeo's advice to those who are thinking about trying it anyway? "How about: Don't use it!"

But Karason believed he'd found a miracle cure in colloidal silver and decided it could even help with his dermatitis. Karason said he "started putting the stuff on my face [with] a cotton ball."

First, he said, his face turned blue. But then, the rest of his body changed color as well.

Karason believes that he'd be fine if he hadn't taken that extra step and put the silver directly on his face.

But medical experts like DeLeo believe the damage was already done.

"Paul turned blue because he ingested and applied elemental silver. It got into his blood stream and then was deposited in his skin as brown particles. And when you see those particles through the skin, they appear to be gray or blue/gray."

And doctors suspect that it's not just his skin that's changed color -- his internal organs are most likely also blue.

Paul's reaction when he realized he'd turned all blue? "I kind of hoped it would fade off!"

But it didn't fade off. Argyria is permanent.

Facing Discrimination

And Karason is far from the only one who's used colloidal silver as a medicine. As recently as the 1950s, colloidal silver was a common remedy for colds and allergies.

That's how Rosemary Jacobs of suburban New York became a victim of argyria. She remembers when her own family doctor prescribed it when she was just 11 years old. She used it for about three years.

"He wrote a prescription for nose drops," she said, "and I took them when I had a stuffy nose."

Not everyone who took silver got argyria, but Jacobs was one of the unlucky ones. Ironically, as a white woman, she often suffered discrimination based on the color of her skin.

"I was facially disfigured when I was a teenager," she said. "And that made it difficult to get jobs, to get apartments, and to get dates."

No Cure

But unlike Karason, Jacobs tried everything -- including dermabrasion -- to get rid of the blue-grey. But she says the results weren't pretty.

"As a result of the dermabrasion, I went from being a solid grey to being a spotty grey," she said. "Now I've got all these pink patches. Originally I was all grey or grey-blue."

Jacobs said that makeup wasn't a solution either.

"I've gone to the people that sell the makeup that covers skin blemishes," she said. "And they apply the makeup. But I go from one unnatural color to another unnatural color."

Jacobs said argyria has changed her life completely.

"I've been very, very depressed, and angry," she said, "because I've been called names in the street, by strangers who don't like the way that I look."

Jacobs said that even well-meaning strangers, seeing her ghostly color, assumed she was going into cardiac arrest.

"I was leaving Germany on the plane once. And suddenly, I had the stewardess running over, wanting to know if I wanted oxygen! I'm like, 'No, no, I'm fine, thank you!'" she said. "And I know they're afraid I'm going to drop dead."

Never married, Jacobs lives alone in rural Vermont. And her lifetime of anguish turned her into an activist. She's outraged that, although mainstream medicine mostly rejected colloidal silver decades ago, it's still being advertised and sold as an alternative therapy for everything from HIV to polio and even the common cold.

But it was those very types of health claims that attracted Karason to colloidal silver. Until last year, he too lived alone.

But at age 57, he fell in love with a woman named Jackie Northup. It began as a telephone romance and it was seven months before they actually met face to face. Jackie remembers her reaction on seeing Paul for the first time.

"I kind of went, 'Oh my God! Oh my God!' But I was already in love with the man," she said. "And so [his face] didn't really matter."

Karason later moved to California to be with her and they recently got engaged.

And he's decided to embrace his blue-ness. He regularly goes out in public, enduring the stares of passers-by. And though he used to be shy, even reclusive, he now enjoys his local celebrity status as "the Blue Man." When he went recently to the Farmers Market in Clovis, Calif., several people stopped and asked to take a picture with him.

Blue No Longer a Favorite Color

Karason is so popular that a young relative of Northup's invited him to visit his sixth-grade class, where the students bombarded him with questions like:

"Do like people make fun of you?"
"Do you ever feel comfortable like going out to places and knowing that they're talking about you?"
"Are people scared of you when they see you?"
"How long does it take for you to turn blue?"
"If there was a cure for you would you wanna take it and go back or stay blue?"

Even this one: "So say I wanted to put that stuff on my face, I could turn blue?"

Karason's answer to that last question? "It's not something I would recommend you do. But that's what happened to me."

But even as he cautions those 12-year-olds not to do what he did, it might shock you to learn that he hasn't give up the habit himself. He says he drinks colloidal silver about once a month, still believing it has health benefits.

And though Karason claims to have made peace with his argyria, he's recently been using an ionic foot-bath, a totally unproven treatment that promises to rid him of his discoloration.

And if there was a proven treatment that he knew would work, Karason says he might or might not take it.

"I mean, once you turn blue, you sort of resign yourself to being different," he said.

Ironically, his favorite color used to be blue; he says that preference changed along with his skin.

For more information about argyria, click here.

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