Field of Science

Blue Color Workers

The title of this post was inspired by a student blooper in a sociology paper where the writer surely did not mean to say "blue color workers". Spell checkers have their limits. In the right context, however, blue color workers is not a candidate for Richard Lederer's next collection.

Exposure to silver can cause argyria, in which the skin turns a grey-blue color as a result of deposits in the dermis of metallic silver and silver compounds. Unlike the orange coloration that eating too many carrots can cause, the dark grey cast of argyria is permanent. The condition can be striking if the entire body is affected. Barnum & Bailey's Blue Man was found at autopsy to have argyria, perhaps from exposure while working as a silver miner: a real blue color worker.

Argyria in this century is more likely a result of exposure to quantities of silver in non-industrial settings. Silver preparations were used pharmaceutically in the early 20th century, and much of the literature about silver and skin discoloration dates to that time. There are reports of cases of argyria arising from use of colloidal silver compounds. Externally applied, salts of silver are effective antiseptics, hence the marketing of these silver solutions as nutritional supplements "to support the immune systems" and as "all-natural antibiotics". There is no evidence that these compounds are effective in these ways when taken internally - and the risk of being permanently blue is not one to be taken lightly! The FDA has ruled that products containing silver or colloidal silver are "not safe and effective" and may not be sold as having any medicinal benefits. Despite this, colloidal silver is readily available.

The photo is of Rosemary Jacobs, who suffers from argyria, and is used with her permission. In 2006, Stan Jones, ran as the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate in Montana. He took a colloidal silver compound in 1999 and now has argyria as a result.

Elemental Tales: Reduced Iron

In the 1970's I was a TV news junky. Dinner was typically late - my dad commuted an hour plus from LA in those days - and my mother would kick me and my homework off the table a bit before 6. I'd duck into the den to get the update on the war (Vietnam, not Iraq!) that my friends' older brothers were fighting. Even then, I was clearly not the advertisers' target demographic. The ads ran the gamut from DentuGrip to Phillip's Milk of Magnesia. And of course, Geritol - exhausted wives re-energized by curing their "iron poor blood" with Geritol, much to their husbands' delight ("My wife. I think I'll keep her!")

More than one in ten adult women (12-49) in the US do suffer from "iron poor blood" or more technically iron deficiency anemia, and world-wide it is the most common nutritional deficiency. (By some estimates two-thirds of pregnant women in developing countries are anemic, primarily due to lack of iron in their diets.)

The body does an impressive job of holding onto the iron it needs not only for synthesizing the oxygen carrying protein hemoglobin, but for enzymes used in other key processes. Total body stores of iron run from about 2 to 4 grams, about two-thirds circulating around in hemoglobin, and twenty percent held in reserve in the bone marrow. The daily loss ranges from 1 milligram to about 1.5 mg in women of child-bearing age. Which begs the question, why is the FDA's recommended dietary allowance of iron 20 mg?

The answer has much to do with the ability of the body to extract iron from various sources. The best form of iron, in terms of its bioavailability, is heme-iron, or iron bound to the plate-like heme structure found in hemoglobin. Non-heme iron, found in plants like the iconic iron source spinach, is tougher for the body to extract and use - estimates are only 10 to 15% of the iron can be absorbed. So to get that 1 mg a day, you need to consume about 10 mg a day. If spinach is not your cup of tea, try dark chocolate; there's 2.3 mg of iron in a 100 gram bar, about the same as in the identically sized serving of spinach.

Lots of Americans get their iron from fortified cereals. Read your box of Total. You'll find that a cup gives you 18 mg of iron. Check the ingredients and you'll notice that it's added in the form of reduced iron. Reduced iron is not iron on a diet, but iron is the pure metallic form. That's right, there's tiny iron filings in your cereal. If you're feeling experimental, toss a couple of cups with milk into the blender, then run a magnet through it. You'll pick up the filings on the magnet. The acid in your stomach turns the metal into an ionic form (Fe2+).

Better yet, cook in cast iron. Scramble your eggs in a cast iron frying pan and you can triple the iron content (from 1.5 mg to almost 5 mg). Cook something acidic, like spaghetti sauce and you can up the iron content by a factor of ten.

Husbands of tired wives might thus consider a nice box of dark chocolate covered apricots rather than replacing the window shades with ads for might cure more ills than just iron deficiency. I would not advise a cast iron frying pan with a bow!

Dried apricots have twice the iron content of spinach and are much tastier when drenched in chocolate.

The heme figure is taken from here.