Senate Hearing Headlines: The Media Gets It Wrong Again. Here Is Some Of What You Need To Know About Supplement Safety.June 1, 2010
In last week’s newsletter, we reported that the staff of the Senate Committee on Aging, led by Senator Kohl (D-WI), was preparing a surprise ambush of dietary supplements in a Senate hearing held last Wednesday. We were right. But we didn’t anticipate how seriously distorted the major media news stories would be.
The centerpiece of the hearing was a report by the GAO (Government Accounting Office) of the testing they had done on 40 herbal supplement bottles at the Committee’s request. An incomplete account of the GAO report was leaked to major media, probably by committee staff, the night before the hearing and produced dramatic headlines. The trouble is that all these headlines were seriously misleading. Here are a few examples:
New York Times: “Study Finds Supplements Contain Contaminants”
CBS News: “Many Supplements Contain Lead, Arsenic”
AOL News: “Herbal Supplements May Pose Health Risk”
At least AOL told the reader that this wasn’t about vitamins or minerals, just herbs. But, contrary to the AOL headline, the GAO found that the herbal supplements did not pose health risks. The GAO reported that “FDA and EPA officials did not express concern regarding any immediate negative health consequences from consuming these supplements.”
To understand why this is so, you have to know that the GAO found only “trace” amounts of the metals, in many cases barely above the level of detectability, far below the levels that the FDA or EPA worries about. And you also have to know that these metals naturally occur in air, water, soil, and food, so they are to be expected at some level in herbal supplements. The critical question is not whether they are there, but rather at what level. The human body has evolved with these metals in our food. Consequently we have the ability to metabolize and excrete them and we do so every day. A problem arises when we ingest or absorb too much for our bodies to handle.
AOL also claimed in the first sentence of its story that the supplements were “laced” with heavy metals. Laced? This suggests large amounts and that someone had put them there intentionally. (We thank AOL News for subsequently deleting the word “laced” at our request.)
Here is an example of what would have been a truthful headline: Trace Amounts Of Lead, Arsenic, And Other Metals, Naturally Found In Air, Water, Soil, And Consequently Food, Were Found In A Limited Sample of Herbal Supplements Derived From Plants, But At Levels Generally Considered Safe. That headline would not of course have run. It would have made it clear that there wasn’t much of a story.
Why did the major media get their reporting so wrong? In some cases, the stories directly contradicted their headlines. Of course the New York Times, CBS News, and similar mainstream media have a long history of attacking natural health approaches in general, and supplements in particular. They are also on the financial ropes these days and would probably go bankrupt without the major drug company advertising they get.
Please don’t misunderstand. ANH-USA is not in favor of heavy metals. In fact we often have defended the right of integrative doctors to treat for heavy metal contamination. And we are not shills for the supplement industry. One of our supporters (Charles) recently sent us the following message: “The way you are spinning this [story] sounds like you are speaking for the supplements industry. I am not interested in taking contaminated supplements. I want clean, uncontaminated supplements that I don’t have to worry about. I’d rather pay more and know that there are some standards for evaluating supplements. I don’t want to be ingesting lead!”
We couldn’t agree more about not wanting to ingest lead. But there is much more to know about it. For example, we need to understand that each time we take a bite of spinach we are ingesting lead. FDA testing suggests that there is 7.0 mcg of lead in an average serving of four ounces of boiled spinach. Shrimp is higher: 23.8mcg. Peaches are lower: 3.4 mcg. Whole wheat bread is lower still at 2.8 mcg and milk is 1.2 mcg. We do not, however, stop eating spinach. Even with the small amount of lead (equivalent to about 7 parts per million), nutritional scientists agree that spinach does us much more good than harm. Overall the FDA says that we should try not to ingest more than 75 mcg of lead per day. The World Health Organization says we can ingest (and safely excrete) up to 243 mcg per day (this assumes we weigh 150 pounds). The amount of lead we know is too much to excrete safely is higher still.
How much lead was in the 40 bottles tested by the GAO? Of the 37 bottles with trace amounts of lead, the echinacea had the most (.043 mcg to 1.290 mcg). The peppermint had the least (.007 mcg to .023 mcg). Note that .007 is barely detectable; the lowest lead that can be detected is .005 mcg. Is this what the media were terrifying us about?
This leads to an important point. Some supplements will be more lead free than others. The highest end supplement companies test each batch of supplement material to be sure it is what it is supposed to be, for potency, for heavy metals, and for pesticides. These tests are very important, especially since so much supplement material comes from China. Not surprisingly, supplements that have been put through more tests may cost more. Of course many consumers cannot afford any supplements at all, much less high end products, and if the FDA has its way, supplements would cost as much as drugs.
You may be able to consume less lead by choosing carefully among supplements. But keep in mind that there is a paradox here. The more “natural” a supplement, the more it is based on plants, the more likely it is to contain lead. Even the highest end supplement companies cannot remove every bit of the lead in a product that is based on spinach and other similar greens.
By the way, the GAO report covered four heavy metals and a number of pesticides as well. Some of the stories spoke of “illegal” pesticide levels. One or more trace pesticide was found in fewer than half the herbal samples and, like the metals, was in an amount lower than what you might get in food. The reason any amount of pesticide may be illegal is that in many cases the EPA has not gotten around to stating an allowable level, something it is supposed to do, and absent a guideline any amount is technically illegal, even though the pesticide may be common in food. To reduce the risk of pesticides, supplement buyers might try, in addition to choosing brands carefully, to buy organic supplements, but even these may have tiny trace amounts of pesticides from rain water and other sources.
Lastly, let’s not imagine, as Charles may or may not have meant to suggest, that increasing the FDA’s budget will lead to safer, higher quality supplements. The 1994 law governing supplements (DSHEA) ordered the FDA to establish good manufacturing practices (GMP’s) for supplement makers. The FDA dragged its heals for years. GMP’s for supplement makers will only finally come into force for all supplement companies next month, sixteen years after passage of the bill!
There always have been and, we have to assume, still are some bad actors among supplement companies. The FDA should move against them, but does not. It has plenty of regulatory authority to do so. The testimony of the Deputy Director of the FDA at the Kohl Senate hearing acknowledged this authority. So why does the Agency hold back? There is evidence that, at least in the past, the Agency had a conscious policy of not regulating supplements in the hope that this would lead to a crisis; the crisis would then lead to a requirement for full drug approval for supplements. Currently the Agency claims it lacks the money to do its job although it’s budget has been sharply increased.
There is a lot more we could tell you about the Senate hearing. But this is plenty for this week’s report. The bottom line: although designed to “ambush” supplements, the facts presented were hardly an indictment. They could just as easily be taken as a validation of the general safety even of herbal supplements, the supplements most likely to contain heavy metals or pesticides.
All of us at ANH-USA are consumers of supplements. We care about supplement safety for the same reasons you do. We will have more to say about this important subject in future newsletters.
By the way, supplements have recently been under steady attack in Congress, so naturally our newsletter has focused on them. But we cover all of natural health and health freedom and have lots of non-supplement news to share with you as soon as space permits.