COVID-19 Is Bringing Back One of the Oldest and Strangest Fake Cures

In late December, right-wing personality and relentless headline-chaser Candace Owens generated a minor wave of news when she exuberantly declared her love for colloidal silver, a very old faux-medical treatment making a strange—but unsurprising—comeback in the pandemic age. In a post highlighted by liberal activist and tech entrepreneur William LeGate and then reported on by the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer, Owens said she takes “a teaspoon a day” of colloidal silver, which is more than enough to cause the product’s best-known side effect: argyria, which can turn one’s skin a permanent shade of blue-grey. Besides Owens, a host of personalities including Alex Jones and infamous televangelist Jim Bakker have promoted colloidal silver as a “treatment” for COVID-19, which it is absolutely not. FDA warning letters from the past two years also show that a host of companies, large and small, are also attempting to rebrand colloidal silver as a COVID cure-all. In all, it’s a useful demonstration of the ways in which COVID has allowed a variety of old snake oil cures to make a roaring comeback, frequently carried along by misinformation purveyors like Owens who may not have a clear idea of the long and addled history of what they’re promoting.

Colloidal silver is a suspension of tiny silver particles in a liquid, taken by mouth, and it has been beloved by the medical fringe for decades. (These days, “nano silver” is also sometimes marketed; the difference is that nano silver products claim to use much smaller silver particles.) Argyria isn’t life-threatening, though it is cosmetically startling. But the NIH and Mayo Clinic warn that colloidal silver can have other side effects, including causing poor absorption of some drugs; in rare cases and at high doses, it can also lead to organ damage and seizurs.

Before antibiotics were widely available, it was believed to be an antibacterial and antiviral treatment; modern bullshit Facebook posts touting its use still refer to the ironically-named British researcher Dr. Henry Crookes, who in the early 1900s began claiming that silver and other metals taken orally could kill bacteria. Crookes then began selling products he called “Crookes Collosols,” although not for very long, as he died in 1915.

Long after antibiotics were developed and everyone should have known better, colloidal silver remained a popular “alternative” treatment, both on the libertarian right—as Sommer pointed out in his piece for the Daily Beast—and in the woo-adjacent natural health world; in both places it’s often seen alongside conspiracy theories about the dark deeds of the government and their eagerness to hide “real” cures from the unsuspecting general populace. Take Stan Jones, a perennial Libertarian candidate in Montana, who’s also known for his colloidal silver-induced blue hue. He told the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report that he learned about the product at a “Preparedness Expo” aimed at the Patriot movement; Jones worried that Y2K would collapse the social order and limit the supply of antibiotics. (Another blue man, Paul Karason, became famous in the mid-2000s after appearing on the Today show; he said he began taking colloidal silver for a variety of conditions.)

Inevitably, celebrities looking to brand themselves as natural health connoisseurs also took up the silver cause: Gwyneth Paltrow claimed pre-pandemic that she sprayed the substance in the air around her upon boarding a plane, which, while useless and probably highly irritating for your seatmate, at least has the health benefit of not turning one’s skin blue. Colloidal silver is also one of a plethora of faux treatments foisted onto the parents of autistic children by opportunists, often under the guise of helping hildren’s supposed immune or gut issues.

Then came COVID, which created a desperate new audience looking for any possible home remedy to feel safer and more protected. In early 2020, Alex Jones began promoting a multitude of products containing nano silver or colloidal silver, including a toothpaste, supplements and creams, all of which he said would work as a “stopgate” against the virus; New York Attorney General Tish James promptly ordered him to stop saying that. At the same time, televangelist Jim Bakker, who’s previously promoted survivalist products, began selling a product he dubbed Silver Solution, prompting a lawsuit from the state of Missouri.

In the same month, the FDA sent warning letters to seven companies telling them to stop claiming that silver was a treatment or preventative for COVID. But for every silver peddler the agency has tried to strike down, dozens more have sprung up, making virtually identical claims. (This past June, for instance, the agency warned an outfit called the Pacific Center of Health & Acupuncture to stop promoting a pack containing both colloidal silver and what the company called “herbal formulas… specifically formulated for combating Covid19.”) The Department of Justice has also occasionally gotten involved in fighting fake silver cures. In late December, the DOJ announced that a federal judge had ordered a company called Natural Solutions Foundation to stop marketing nano silver products; it  had recommended drinking a cup of their silver product per day to prevent COVID. (MedPage today points out that the company’s trustees, Rima Laibow MD, a psychiatrist, and Ralph Fucetola, who calls himself the “Vitamin Lawyer,” previously claimed that nano silver products were a treatment or preventative for Ebola.) Silver products keep popping up in new forms: Not long ago, for instance, Parade, an incredibly mainstream lifestyle magazine, bafflingly promoted the use of colloidal silver in a listicle about preventing “green phlegm.”

In all, the incredibly persistent afterlife of one fake cure is a fairly effective demonstration of how hard it is to swat down a single bad idea or profitable lie, let alone the ecosystem that creates and supports them. The virtues for misinformation peddlers trying to catch a headline are many; by promoting colloidal silver, people like Candace Owens and Alex Jones are signalling to their audiences that they’re part of a lineage of bullshit, one that’s adept at reformulating to meet new diseases and new emergencies. And whatever the new cure, they’ll ask you—both figuratively and literally—to swallow it.

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