Tests show many supplements have quality problems

One quarter of supplements tested by an independent company over the last decade have had some sort of problem. Some contained contaminants. Others had contents that did not match label claims. Some had ingredients that exceeded safe limits. Some contained real drugs masquerading as natural supplements. Examples found include:
  • Lead in ginkgo pills
  • Arsenic in herbals.
  • Bugs in a baby’s colic and teething syrup.
  • Other tests, reported in scientific journals, found prenatal vitamins lacking claimed amounts of iodine, and supplements short on ginseng and hoodia. Are supplements safe? Tests by researchers and private labs suggest the answer sometimes is no. Millions of Americans take vitamin, herbal or other dietary supplements. Annual sales exceed $23 billion, and more than 40,000 products are on the market. Tens of thousands of supplement-related health problems are handled by U.S. poison control centers each year, according to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002. Until last year, supplement makers were not required to report problems to the FDA, and even now they must report only serious ones. The agency estimates that more than 50,000 safety problems a year are related to supplement use. Of course, prescription drugs have had problems, too. Dozens of deaths were linked last year to tainted heparin, a blood thinner produced in China, for example. However, pharmaceutical drugs must show evidence to the government of safety and effectiveness before they go on sale. Not so for dietary supplements. Fifteen years ago, Congress passed a law that treats supplements like food and allows them to go straight to market without federal Food and Drug Administration approval. The FDA can act only after consumers get sick or a safety issue comes to light. Makers can say a supplement addresses a nutrient deficiency, supports health, or reduces the risk of developing a problem, but then must say the product “is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” So consumers will see vague claims, such as “promotes healthy immune system function.” The Federal Trade Commission has stepped up actions against deceptive ads, said commission lawyer Rich Cleland. “It is a little like playing Whack-A-Mole,” because each time one problem is resolved, more seem to pop up, he said. Industry also has stepped up self-policing. The Council for Responsible Nutrition gave money to the Council of Better Business Bureaus so it could hire a lawyer to investigate some supplement sellers' sketchy claims. The BBB council targets the worst claims in popular categories, such as diet, cold and flu, menopause, joint problems and sleep aids. (Source: AP)