A FULL-page advertisement in the West Australian recently caught my attention.

“The truth about colloidal silver and ionic silver,” read the headline, followed by a great deal of sciencey-sounding stuff about electrical systems and nanoparticles.

The ad included pictures of the ionic silver products on sale – medicine bottles and a spray – which were “available at your local health food shops, pharmacies and health professionals”.

A helpful list of outlets, including a number of pharmacies, occupied the bottom third of the page.

The ad was clearly designed to grab market share for ionic silver products, as opposed to colloidal ones. I’m not going to buy into that battle, but what I did notice reading the page was that it contained no description of the uses of the products or their alleged benefits.

There’s a reason for that. The peddlers of these kinds of potions are treading a very fine line.

They use medical-style packaging and terminology, sell through pharmacies, refer vaguely to “health professionals” in their marketing, but all the while avoid making any explicit health claims.

The website for these particular locally manufactured products doesn’t provide much more information.

“Silver ions are one of the most highly respected natural substances and are believed to have beneficial therapeutic qualities as they have the unique ability to disable the enzyme system of Bacteria, Virus, Yeasts and other harmful parasites,” it says.

It goes on to thank the hundreds of people who have sent in testimonials attesting to the effectiveness of the products in “a variety of conditions”, but says it is unable to publish them “at this time” due to Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) guidelines.

In other words, they can make their products sound as full of health benefits as they like but if they said anything about what the products are actually supposed to do, they would be considered to be making therapeutic claims, which would make them subject to regulation by the TGA.

Fortunately, the company’s potential customers don’t have to make too much effort to discover the amazing benefits of various silver preparations in hundreds of conditions ranging from arthritis to HIV and, of course, cancers.

An internet search for silver products seems to indicate they comply with my newly formulated “Three Rules for Identifying Quackery” (you’re welcome):

  1. the product cures a large number of unrelated conditions;
  2. it was used by the ancient Egyptians/Greeks/Chinese/Amazonians … whoever; and
  3. there is a conspiracy by the medical establishment and pharmaceutical industry to keep this miracle-working elixir from a deserving public.

“Silver has a centuries-old medicinal history dating back to the time of the Phoenicians, Hippocrates (460 BC – c. 370 BC), the glory days of the Greek and Romans, and the age of royal European families,” says one site. “During the era of plague, many aristocrats were spared the Black Death through their use of silver plates, utensils and drinking containers.”

Happily, that ancient wisdom is resilient despite unwarranted attacks, the site goes on to explain.

“Regardless of modern-day nay-sayers (many medical professionals, government, and big Pharma) who aim to discredit silver through misinformation, omitted information and scare tactics, silver’s overwhelming track record as a natural remedy throughout history is virtually impossible to dispute.”

Maybe silver goblets should be available on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Those well known naysayers at the Mayo Clinic take a different view.

“Silver has no known purpose in the body,” it says. “Nor is it an essential mineral, as some sellers of silver products claim.”

Silver products have been alleged to boost the immune system, fight bacteria and viruses, and to treat cancer, HIV/AIDS, shingles, herpes, eye conditions and prostatitis, the clinic says, but “no sound scientific studies to evaluate these health claims have been published in reputable medical journals”.

And then there’s the risk that ingesting too much of the stuff might actually turn you a becoming shade of silver-grey, in a condition called argyria, or even (rarely) cause irreversible kidney or neurological damage.

But, hey, who cares what the Mayo Clinic says when there’s ancient Phoenician wisdom to draw on …

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and health writer.


The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or MJA InSight unless that is so stated.


4 thoughts on “Every silver lining has a cloud

  1. Randal Williams says:

    Pharmacists want more authority to advise and prescribe, yet if you look around pharmacies you see shelves full of “health’ products of dubious or no value , and this is another example . This creates a conflict of interest, pharmacists gaining financial benefit by suggesting the products they sell. The makers of these products get around truth in advertising with delightfully vague statements like “this product may assist with promoting immunity and well being’ etc, vague enough to be almost impossible to disprove. Of course the inevitable disclaimer follows ” if symptoms persist see your health care professional”–note, not doctor but “health care professional “–this could be a naturopath, chiropractor or, yes of course, pharmacist.! Jane McCredie does a very good job in exposing these snake-oil type products but really, pharmacists have to make a better effort to promote evidence based products.

  2. Max Kamien says:

    Like the idea of silver goblets subsidised by the PBS. The Private health funds could then keep ahead by offering Gold Goblets to their top of the range customers.
    In the 19th century the health advantages of eating on silver plates became obvious when the public noticed that the rich had better health than the poor. That is when colloidal silver, made from the scrapings of silversmiths, first began.
    Nasal guttae arg nitrate tds was also a treatment for asthma. In 1969 I had such a patient when sitting the London MRCP. He had been taking his drops, on an ad infinitum 1923 script. He had argyria.
    My interest in medical history had resulted in many visits to the Burroughs-Wellcome museum where there was a photo of such a patient. I made the diagnosis and gave a version of this dissertation. The elderly examiner was not happy. I had destroyed his fun.

  3. Leviathan says:

    Thanks Jane. Re Quackery Rule 3: every time I read this on Those Memes, I get irritated that I’m not getting my Shill Money. If someone could inbox me as to where to apply for my cut I’d be very grateful thx

  4. Marcello Costa says:

    A wonderful article to unmask one more attempt to extract moneys from the gullible. I hope even wider journalism will follow Jane’s example. As a member of executive of Friend of Science in Medicine I can only rejoice to see the battle agains ingnorance and against abuses of pseudomedicines be taken up by such top journal and science writer. Congratulations.

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