Looking blue can mean feeling sad or it can indicate that you have argyria, a condition caused by ingesting too much silver. An Oct. 29, 2012 news item on Nanowerk about research on argyria taking place at Brown University reveals the latest insight on the cause for this condition,
Researchers from Brown University have shown for the first time how ingesting too much silver can cause argyria, a rare condition in which patients’ skin turns a striking shade of grayish blue.
“It’s the first conceptual model giving the whole picture of how one develops this condition,” said Robert Hurt, professor of engineering at Brown and part of the research team. “What’s interesting here is that the particles someone ingests aren’t the particles that ultimately cause the disorder.”
Scientists have known for years argyria had something to do with silver. The condition has been documented in people who (ill advisedly) drink antimicrobial health tonics containing silver nanoparticles and in people who have had extensive medical treatments involving silver. Tissue samples from patients showed silver particles actually lodged deep in the skin, but it wasn’t clear how they got there.
As it turns out, argyria is caused by a complex series of chemical reactions, Hurt said. His paper on the subject, authored with Brown colleagues Jingyu Liu, Zhongying Wang, Frances Liu, and Agnes Kane, is published in the journal ACS Nano (“Chemical Transformations of Nanosilver in Biological Environments” [behind a paywall]).
The Oct. 25, 2012 Brown University news release (which originated the news item) provides more detail,
Hurt and his team have been studying the environmental impact of silver, specifically silver nanoparticles, for years. They’ve found that nanosilver tends to corrode in acidic environments, giving off charged ions — silver salts — that can be toxic in large amounts. Hurt’s graduate student, Jingyu Liu (now a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology), thought those same toxic ions might also be produced when silver enters the body, and could play a role in argyria.
To find out, the researchers mixed a series chemical treatments that could simulate what might happen to silver inside the body. One treatment simulated the acidic environment in the gastrointestinal tract; one mimicked the protein content of the bloodstream; and a collagen gel replicated the base membranes of the skin.
They found that nanosilver corrodes in stomach acid in much the same way it does in other acidic environments. Corrosion strips silver atoms of electrons, forming positively charged silver salt ions. Those ions can easily be taken into the bloodstream through channels that absorb other types of salt. That’s a crucial step, Hurt said. Silver metal particles themselves aren’t terribly likely to make it from the GI tract to the blood, but when they’re transformed into a salt, they’re ushered right through.
From there, Hurt and his team showed that silver ions bind easily with sulfur present in blood proteins, which would give them a free ride through the bloodstream. Some of those ions would eventually end up in the skin, where they’d be exposed to light.
To re-create this end stage, the researchers shined ultraviolet light on collagen gel containing silver ions. The light caused electrons from the surrounding materials to jump onto the unstable ions, returning them to their original state — elemental silver. This final reaction is ultimately what turns patients’ skin blue. The photoreaction is similar to the way silver is used in black and white photography [emphasis mine]. When exposed to light, silver salts on a photographic film reduce to elemental silver and darken, creating an image.
While I find the notion that the body’s reaction to silver is similar to the processing of silver in black and white photography, it’s the discussion about toxicity that most interests me. The scientists at Brown are suggesting that standard ‘ingestable’ silver could be more dangerous than silver nanoparticles when they are consumed in the body,
This research, however, “would be one piece of evidence that you could treat nanoparticles in the same way as other forms of silver,” Hurt says.
That’s because the bioavailable form of silver — the form that is absorbed into the bloodstream — is the silver salt that’s made in the stomach. Any elemental silver that’s ingested is just the raw material to make that bioavailable salt. So ingesting silver in any form, be it nano or not, would have basically the same effect, Hurt said.
“The concern in this case is the total dose of silver, not what form it’s in,” Hurt said. “This study implies that silver nanoparticles will be less toxic than an equivalent amount of silver salt, at least in this exposure scenario [emphasis mine].”
This research provides more evidence supporting Dr. Andrew Maynard’s contention that creating definitions and regulations for nanomaterials based on size may not be the best approach. Here’s his response to my question (in an Oct. 24, 2011 posting) about the then newly adopted Health Canada definition (which includes size) for nanomaterials,
The problem is that, while the Health Canada is a valiant attempt to craft a definition based on the current state of science, it is still based on a premise – that size within a well defined range is a robust indicator of novel risk – that is questionable [emphasis mine]. Granted, they try to compensate for the limitations of this premise, but the result still smacks of trying to shoehorn the science into an assumption of what is important.
One can only wait as the evidence continues to mount on one side or the other. In the meantime, I don’t one can ever go wrong with BB King, one of the great blues guitar players (Blues Boys Tune),