When Desiderius Erasmus said, "In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king," he might have had the Government Accountability Office (the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress) and would-be congressional regulators of dietary supplements in mind. Of course, Erasmus lived in the 15th century, so maybe not.
Recently, the GAO launched a big flap over contaminants and heavy metals found in herbal dietary supplements. A Congressional investigation, in a report prepared by the Government Accountability Office, showed that nearly all of the herbal supplements tested contained trace amounts of heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic as well as other contaminants. None of the heavy metals were found in amounts that exceeded the danger thresholds set by the government. Although pesticide residues that did exceed safe limits were found in 16 out of 40 of the supplements tested.
Clearly, the GAO did have "one" eye open. Pesticide and heavy metal contamination is serious business. As I've written before, there's a connection between pesticides, heavy metals and all sorts of health conditions including cancer and Parkinson's disease. Plus, as I've also discussed, high levels of these types of contaminants are commonly found in the blood of children, even if the children live hundreds miles away from sources of pollution and are raised on organic diets. It's a good thing to help people know where their exposure to toxins comes from, including if it comes from items found in health food stores.
But when it comes to investigating and regulating herbal supplements, Congress needs to have both eyes open. Heavy metals are commonly found in the ground and in the plants and vegetables that grow from the ground -- both in the wild and on farms. Acid rain, use of pesticides, motor vehicle exhaust, and the toxic leavings of a variety of manufacturing and mining processes contribute to the presence of these substances in the soil. The vegetables you grow in your garden or buy from the organic section of your supermarket or health food store will all have trace elements of heavy metals. It's not a good thing that residues exist in herbal supplements, but to point to them as the bad kids in a class full of hoodlums hardly seems fair. Compare herbals, for instance, to wines from France or Chile and they'll look virginal in terms of both pesticide and heavy metal content. Compare pesticide residues in supplements to those in imported sweet peppers that you buy at the store and you may reconsider a carnivorous diet.
The relative dangers of most nutraceuticals are less than minimal when compared to pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter drugs. As I've written previously, while prescription drugs kill up to a 140,000 Americans a year, herbs and nutraceuticals kill fewer than 100 (with most of those attributions being highly questionable). Even FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfenstein said that he wasn't worried about the safety of the supplements that the GAO reported on.
The recent McNeil product recall brings this into perspective. The FDA started an investigation into Johnson and Johnson (McNeil is a division of Johnson and Johnson) after the company recalled nearly 50 over-the-counter drugs for children including Motrin, Tylenol, Benadryl and Zyrtec. Three manufacturing blunders spurred the recall: some of the drugs had higher concentrations of ingredients than they should have; some new ingredients were contaminated with bacteria; and some inactive ingredients either contained "tiny particles" or didn't meet "internal testing requirements." This recall was McNeil's fourth in seven months.
The FDA stepped in to investigate reports of serious side effects. One set consists of more than 750 such reports. Another consists of several hundred such reports plus reports of seven deaths since May 1, 2010. Lots recalled by McNeil between November of 2009 and January of 2010 made consumers sick with vomiting and diahrrea. However, McNeil claimed that the latest recall of children's remedies was a precaution and did not result from reports of adverse effects.
And here's where we need to have both eyes open. Aside from the concerns about manufacturing errors or impurities, Acetaminophen, (sold as Tylenol, by McNeil), is commonly considered a safe over-the-counter pain reliever. Yet, according to WebMd, "because of acetaminophen's widespread availability and the underestimation of its potential toxicity, acetaminophen poisoning is the most common cause of acute liver failure and overdose deaths." An article in the hcspfactsheet, amplifies this concern when it says that acetaminophen"is one of the leading causes of liver failure in the United States, accounting for more than 56,000 emergency room visits, 2,600 hospitalizations, and an estimated 450 deaths per year."
This does not mean that it's okay for supplements to be rich in toxic residues -- heavy metals, pesticides, or "other contaminants." Although, keep in mind, that unlike produce at grocery stores, the better supplement manufacturers test the ingredients they use for contamination, according to Steve Mister, president of the trade organization that represents the supplement industry. But Mr. Mister (that is Steve, not the eponymous '80s pop group) still felt that Congress should provide more funding so that the FDA can conduct inspections in both foreign and domestic supplement manufacturing plants.
In any event, perhaps Congress should make sure they're seeing better than the "one-eyed man." It's hard to justify the alarm over unavoidable trace elements of heavy metals in herbals, in light of the serious toll on human health from accepted pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter drugs.
And by the way, if you can find a banana without aluminum in it, more power to you! In fact, here is just a small list of some of the heavy metals commonly found in foods we regularly eat.
- Almonds: Aluminum, barium, nickel, rubidium, silicon, strontium, sulfur, and titanium.
- Apples: Aluminum, arsenic, barium, lead, nickel, silicon, and titanium.
- Broccoli: Aluminum, nickel, silicon, strontium, sulfur, and titanium.
- Carrots: Aluminum, barium, lithium, nickel, rubidium, silicon, strontium, sulfur, and titanium.
- Grapes: Aluminum, barium, lithium, nickel, rubidium, silicon, strontium, sulfur, and titanium.
- Tomatoes: Aluminum, barium, bromine, lithium, nickel, silicon, strontium, sulfur, and titanium.
So make sure you detox regularly.