Washington area consumers are about to discover gold and silver veins lodged in a wide range of products, as the steadily rising cost of the precious metals used in manufacturing and industry begins to force retail prices up for some consumer goods.
Among those likely to feel the impact of the initial round of price increases produced by the record high costs of gold and silver are motorcyclists, persons being treated for rheumatoid arthritis, fire fighters, collectors of red glass, camera buffs, X-ray subjects and dental patients. All of those consumers use products that normally contain some amounts of gold or silver.
The metals continued to sell yesterday at record prices. Gold closed at $747 an ounce, more than twice its price last year. Silver was $45.70 an ounce, down slightly from the day before but still roughly seven times as much as it cost a year ago.
"The price increases will be passed on to the consumer -- that is the only thing they (manufacturers and merchants) can do," said Richard L. Davies, managing director of The Gold Institute and executive director of The Silver Institute, the trade associations of meal producing countries.
Davies said, however, that the price increase for many products will be small because the amount of precious metals they contain is only a fractional part of the product's total cost. "An example is a refrigerator," he said. "There might be half an ounce of silver in a refrigerator. If the price of silver were doubled, that wouldn't change drastically the total price of the refrigerator."
One dramatic example of the price increases coursing toward consumers is photographic film, which contains significant and essential amounts of silver.
Eastman Kodak said it is raising film prices by 15 to 35 percent later this month because of higher silver costs. Movie film will increase in price 25 percent, a company spokesman said. And some phototypesetting papers will soar 75 percent.
Black and white film will have a bigger price increase than color film, said George Collier, a Kodak representative. "We can recover more silver from color film during processing than from black and white film," he said.
Altogether, Kodak recovers about 20 million ounces of silver from the film it processes each year. In addition, the company buys about 50 million ounces of silver from three mines in Canada and one in the United States.
"We convert the silver into silver halide crystals, which are sensitive to light. And it is the sensitivity that is the magic of photography," Collier said.
X-ray film, which also contains large amounts of silver, is increasing in price, too. That promises to raise the cost for X-ray subjects.
"The cost here for a chest X-ray is $24 for one view and $29 for two views," said a spokesman for Georgetown University Hospital. But because of recent price increases, including a 40-percent increase this month, Georgetown "will be revising our prices in line with what our film costs," the spokesman said. The precise amount of the revision has not been set, however.
About 40 percent of all the silver consumed last year in the United States went for photographic purposes, including camera film and X-ray film, according to H. J. Drake, the silver commodity specialist with the U. S. Bureau of Mines.
The rest was used in a wide range of products, Drake said. His breakdown showed that 19 percent was for electrical and electronic products, which depend on silver contacts to pass electricity from one point to an other in Washing machines, refrigerators and radios; 7 percent for alloys and solders for plumbing and electronics; 5 percent for manufacturing organic chemicals, such as formaldehyde, and 4 percent for special batteries for guided missiles, wristwatches and hearing aids.
Nonindustrial used of silver included the 11 percent that wound up in sterling ware and 3 percent for jewerly. The other 11 percent was consumed by miscellaneous users, Drake said.
Although most of the silver supply goes for industrial and manufacturing uses, most gold in the United States ends up in jewelry, as gilt on buildings and as decorative touches on figurines, dinnerware and objects of art.
W. C. Butterman, a gold commodity specilist in the U.S. Bureau of Mines, estimated that 56 percent of the gold consumed last year was for jewelry and the arts. About 28 percent was for industry, mostly in the electronics field, and 15 percent for dental purposes. Another 1 percent went into miscellaneous uses, including a small amount that was converted into medallions and small bars made for investment sales.
Aside from the price, the most striking difference between gold and silver is the supply. An estimated 170 million ounces of silver were consumed last year in the United States, compared to about 4.7 million ounces of gold. l
Today's gold prices have prompted one New England glass manufacturer to cancel plans for a batch of the prized ruby red glassware.
Robert Bryden, owner and manager of Pairpoint Glass in Sagamore, Mass., normally makes ruby red once every 12 to 18 months. But not any more. "Not when gold is $600 an ounce," he said yesterday.
Gold is also used to relieve the pains of rheumatoid arthritis and to protect fireman making rescue attempts.
"The gold in the face-shield prevents the plastic from melting," said chief Gerald Eckholm of the District of Columbia Fire Department. The Department has about 30 helmets with gold shields for the firemen who man the foam trucks.
"They put them on when they are standing by for the president's helicopter to land or take off," he said.
Eckholm expects the special helmets to cost more when they are replaced.
Price increases also are predicted for the gold salt doses administered as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.
"It occurred to me, watching the gold price increases, that the gold salts will increase, I am sure they will," said Dr. Raymond Scalettar, a Washington physician.
However, Merck Sharp & Dohme, one of the drug companies that makes a gold salt solution, has no immediate plans for a price increase, a spokesman said.
At present a patient receiving the gold treatment is given 20 injections over a period of weeks. The series of shots costs about $160, excluding blood studies and related medical costs.
Dr. Scalettar, a former president of the Medical Society of the District of Columbia, said about 50 percent of the gold sodium thiomolate injection is actual gold which has anti-inflammatory properties.
The manufacturers of Champion Spark Plugs have another use for gold. "Gold paladium is very strong in the hostile environment that a spark plug goes through," said Eugene Hogan, a spokesman for the manufacturer. Most Champion standard spark plugs rely on nickel rather than gold, however.
Champion gold paladium plugs are used primarily in motorcycles and snowmobiles, he said. Some racing car drivers use them and a few foreign cars, such as the Audi, rely on them.
One gold spark plug now sells for about $3.47 at retail stores in the Washington area. But not for long.
"We haven't made a decision, but we are considering a price increase because of this great increase in the gold market," Hogan said.
Some products and services that rely on gold and silver will not be affected at all by the higher metal costs, according to industry officials.
The monthly telephone bill, for example, won't increase, because the amount of gold used in its circuitry is too meager to matter, said a spokesman for the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.