One of the mantras repeatedly intoned by proponents of “alternative medicine” — to deride science-based (or “conventional”) medicine — is that pharmaceuticals are “toxic” to the body; they’re vile, alien substances that fight the body and attack tissues, rather than working with the body “holistically” (whatever that means). The sad truth is that lots of “alternative medicines” or “dietary supplements” (they’re called the latter, in order to evade FDA review) are no safer. I blogged a couple years ago about “ayurvedic medicines” that are — sometimes — dangerously toxic. But now, the New York Times reports on a GAO study that reveals the danger (WebCite cached article):

Nearly all of the herbal dietary supplements tested in a Congressional investigation contained trace amounts of lead and other contaminants, and some supplement sellers made illegal claims that their products can cure cancer and other diseases, investigators found.

The levels of heavy metals ó including mercury, cadmium and arsenic ó did not exceed thresholds considered dangerous, the investigators found. However, 16 of the 40 supplements tested contained pesticide residues that appeared to exceed legal limits, the investigators found.

On top of these revelations, the GAO found that manufacturers had made illegal claims about their products:

Investigators found at least nine products that made apparently illegal health claims, including a product containing ginkgo biloba that was labeled as a treatment for Alzheimerís disease and a product containing ginseng labeled as a treatment to prevent diabetes and cancer.

This study had to be done by the GAO, because the FDA is forbidden to evaluate “dietary supplements”:

In 1994, Congress passed legislation that allowed supplement makers to sell products without first getting approval from the F.D.A. for their ingredients or for basic health claims. But scientific organizations have warned repeatedly since then that the F.D.A. should do more to ensure that the supplements are safe and that their health claims are substantiated.

The law referred to here is the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (aka DSHEA). It may be changing, and the GAO’s study is related to that:

[The report’s] release comes two weeks before the Senate is scheduled to begin debate on a landmark food safety bill that is expected to substantially increase the federal governmentís authority over food manufacturers.

Even so, prospects for rationality in the manufacture and sale of these alternative medicines are bleak:

But it is uncertain how tough the bill will be on supplement manufacturers, and it has been the subject of fierce lobbying. Capitol Hill staff members familiar with the process said the bill was unlikely to include provisions opposed by supplement manufacturers.

If you live in the U.S., you should contact your House representative and both Senators and ask that they bring some sanity back to this industry.

Hat tip: Consumerist.

Photo credit: Neeta Lind.

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