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Video: Why this man turned blue

TODAY contributor
updated 1/7/2008 10:41:41 AM ET 2008-01-07T15:41:41

Paul Karason gives new meaning to the phrase “feeling blue.”

The auburn-bearded 57-year-old Californian goes through life being stared at and being hailed as “Papa Smurf” because his skin is the color of a ripe Concord grape.

“I’m the blue guy,” he confirmed with a chuckle to TODAY co-host Matt Lauer in Studio 1A on Monday. 

“It’s everywhere I go,” he said of the stares his skin color attracts. “I’ve gotten kind of used to it. I’m rather inured to it.”

Karason’s skin started turning blue nearly 10 years ago when he used a used a silver preparation to treat a bad case of dermatitis on his face that broke out due to stress when his father died.

Reclusive by nature, he became a public story about six months ago when he moved from Oregon to Madera, Calif., explaining that he wanted to live in a place where people were more accepting of his unusual condition.

“I do tend to avoid people in some ways, but then I always did. I’ve always been sort of reclusive,” he told Lauer. “This change in skin color has obviously brought on scrutiny that I would never ordinarily have experienced.”

With him was his girlfriend, Jackie Northrup, who met Karason on the phone and came to love him for his warm and caring nature. When she finally met him in person, it was a revelation.

“It was a shock initially,” she said of seeing him for the first time. “But I already knew the person that I had been talking to, so I really didn’t see the blue. He’s an incredible person.”

She said that Karason is living proof that what matters is a person’s character, not his or her appearance.

Don’t try this at home
The condition he has is called argyria, and NBC’s chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, said it’s caused by the silver that Karason used to treat his dermatitis and has been drinking in a liquid form called colloidal silver on and off for some 14 years.

Colloidal silver is a suspension of silver in a liquid base — in this case, distilled water. Karason makes it himself by running an electrical current through water with a piece of silver in it, a process called electrolysis.

Silver has antibacterial properties and has been used to fight infection for thousands of years. But it went out of use when penicillin, which is far more effective, was developed.

It continued to be used in some over-the-counter medicines until 1999, when the FDA banned it because it causes argyria, which is a result of the silver reacting with light the same way it does in photography. The silver collects in the skin and other organs and does not dissipate.

Paul Karason wasn't always blue, as this "before" photo attests.
Silver is a heavy metal and doctors say it can collect in the organs and cause kidney and liver damage and even brain seizures. But it is still sold as a dietary supplement.

Karason, who seems the picture of health, said he feels just fine. But the irony is that the silver he put on his face did not cure his dermatitis, although it did reduce the inflammation where his skin was cracked and peeling. But he had started drinking colloidal silver several years earlier after seeing a magazine ad for it. The ad said it was effective against a broad range of medical conditions — claims that the FDA says are not substantiated.

“I did it all on my own,” Karason said. “Originally, I just saw an ad for a colloidal silver generator in a magazine and the picture stuck in my head like a song might stick in your head. I had a friend who had severe petroleum poisoning, and I heard colloidal silver was helpful for that, and that’s how I started.”

Lauer asked Karason why, if the silver did not cure his dermatitis, he keeps taking it. “Because of some profound benefits that I had received from using it, like no more acid reflux, no more sinus troubles; my arthritis went away,” he said.

“I think it’s fair to say that the color you see on the outside is the same color on the inside,” Snyderman said. “Doctors are always concerned because silver is a heavy metal. It can damage internal organs like liver and kidneys. Paul and I look at this very, very differently. I come from the medical community and Paul looks at the medical establishment askew.”

Snyderman said she would not endorse anyone taking colloidal silver.

“It’s not something I recommend because there’s no science behind it,” she said. “I worry about the safety, and the FDA has been very strong in saying there’s no reason to take it.”

She added that Karason’s case of the blues is permanent. Even if he stops taking silver solutions, his skin color will not return to normal.

Karason has said that he had his blood tested for heavy metal content 10 years ago and was told he doesn’t have a problem. He has not returned to a doctor for a second test, and Snyderman and Lauer tried to get him to promise to be checked for liver and kidney function.

“Maybe,” Karason said, “but not right now.”

Nor does he intend to stop drinking his silver cocktails.

“I might not be able to levitate anymore,” he quipped..

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