January 28, 2008 12:00 PM

Paul Karason knows how to make a fashion statement. Answering the door of his Madera, Calif., house, he wears blue jeans, a blue denim shirt layered over a blue turtleneck and, well, a blue face. “My sister doesn’t like me wearing so much blue,” he says. “But, hey, at least I’m color-coordinated!”

Karason, 57, wasn’t born this way. Look closely and it’s possible to see the freckles that still dot his once fair skin. “I’m the kind of guy who would get sunburned in the wintertime,” Karason says. But as a result of a controversial medical therapy he has been using for 14 years, Karason has radically changed his exterior color.

The transformation began in 1994 when Karason, a soft-spoken landscaper then living in Bellingham, Wash., was reading Atlantis Rising, a magazine devoted to alternative science. He noticed an ad championing the curative powers of colloidal silver. Though long promoted by advocates as a remedy for a variety of illnesses, colloidal silver is banned by the FDA in products making claims to any health benefits (see box). Still, says Karason, who has always been intensely skeptical of traditional medicine, “that ad got stuck in my head like a song and I couldn’t get rid of it.” For $60, he purchased a generator that allows him to make colloidal silver from distilled water and silver wire. For the next four years, he says, he drank a tumbler of the bitter, milky liquid every night, marveling at what he felt were its restorative effects: “I suffered from a chronic case of acid reflux and within three days it just disappeared,” he says. “I’d had terrible sinus trouble forever, and that drained completely within three weeks. After three months, the arthritis in my shoulder was completely gone.”

At first, Karason says, he noticed no negative side effects, let alone a change in skin color. In 1998 he quit his job to move in with his parents, who had both suffered strokes and needed constant attention. Overwhelmed by his role as a caregiver, he says, and distracted by his own disintegrating marriage, Karason developed a painful case of dermatitis.

That’s when he began to apply colloidal silver directly to the cracked and peeling skin on his face. “I thought it might help the inflammation,” he says. And it appeared to do so. But over several months, it turned Karason’s face a dark shade of blue (a condition known as argyria, when the silver accumulates in tissue under the skin). “I was so stressed out taking care of my parents, I just didn’t notice the change,” he explains.

Both of Karason’s parents died within the year. When he resumed his own life, he says, he belatedly realized what had happened to the skin all over his body. “To be honest, I shrugged it off,” he says. “By the time it was all over [i.e., his parents’ deaths], I didn’t care about anything.”

Karason stopped applying silver to his skin but he did continue to ingest it, though on a more limited basis. “If there is a flu or cold bug going around, it’s good to have it in your system,” he says. He has never sought a doctor’s advice about his blue skin. According to Dr. Akhil Wadhera, a dermatologist at Kaiser Permanente in Fremont, Calif., who has treated argyria, small quantities of colloidal silver don’t lead to systemic damage, but large doses can be toxic. “It can cause coma, pleural edema [fluid in the lungs] and hemolysis [breakdown of blood cells], even death,” Dr. Wadhera says.

Karason has developed ways to cope with stares and repeated questions. “Sometimes I’ll tell people I’m from another planet,” he says. “Generally, though, a smile does a lot.”

In June, Karason, now divorced and between jobs, moved from his home in Oregon to California to live with Jackie Northup, 63, a medical records administrator he was introduced to over the phone by his sister. “For six months we talked every night,” Northup says of the long-distance courtship. Though Karason’s sister told her about Paul’s blue skin, Northup never saw a picture of him until three weeks before he arrived. “I gasped two or three times, but I knew the person by then,” she says. Now Northup is treating one of her own ailments, carpal tunnel syndrome, with a small daily dose of colloidal silver. Midway through his life, Karason—a guy who loves reading about paranormal phenomena and ancient mysteries—seems to have found somebody who truly understands him. “I’ve always been a little weird,” he says. “In a way, I take pleasure in being unique.”

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