Lead, mercury, arsenic—the mystery ingredients lurking in your supplements

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

Vitamins, minerals, and supplements are a huge industry—about $32 billion sold in the USA in 2012. You might think someone in the government would keep an eye on all of those pills to make sure they’re safe, or maybe make sure that what’s in the bottle is what it says on the label.

Fat chance. Current regulations allow essentially no scrutiny of supplements. Anything that had been sold before 1994 can continue to be sold, no questions asked. Though newer substances are supposed to be registered, they don’t have to await approval before hitting the shelves. It is up the FDA, afterwards, to figure out which of these are harmful. That’s in stark contrast to genuine medications, which have to be proven safe and effective before they’re sold.

In 2013, an extensive study using DNA testing looked at several supplements, finding that many pills made of fillers, rice, and weeds. Almost all of the samples contained cheap fillers not listed on the label, and many contained weeds and contaminants that could cause genuine illness. These were bottles of supplements purchased from several retail outlets from the US and Canada, from a variety of companies. Only 2 of the 12 companies had products that were accurately labeled without contamination.

Now, a new study has shown similar problems with both US- and Indian-manufactured Ayurvedic compounds. 193 samples obtained though internet sale sites were analyzed, and 20% contained toxic amounts of lead, mercury, or arsenic.

Previous studies, reviewed here, have shown that many supplements are adulterated with pharmaceutical products—real drugs—not shown on the label, and not legally sold without a prescription. When the FDA investigates, these companies can change the name of the product and keep selling it. Under current law, it is impossible for anyone to enforce safety standards, or even insist that product labels accurately reflect what’s in the bottle. People are not getting what they’re paying for, and people are getting sick from taking potent or toxic chemicals they didn’t expect.

It’s time for vitamins, supplements, and minerals to come out of the shadows. If they’re safe and effective, they ought to be sold—but if they’re just a load of toxic crap and fillers, they ought to be thrown out, and the companies who’re selling them driven out of business. Why are we giving these huge, profitable companies a free pass to lie about what they’re selling and what their products can do to us?

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2 Comments on “Lead, mercury, arsenic—the mystery ingredients lurking in your supplements”

  1. e canfield Says:

    This makes me kind of nervous about the iron supplements I was told to take while pregnant and nursing late last year/earlier this year (I had “dilutional anemia” and son’s ped wanted me to continue). Did my best to find the least quackish brand, but still.


  2. Great article–I totally agree. Not only are supplements not known to be safe…they’re also not proven to be effective. It’s a battle trying to convince people that “natural” isn’t always healthy. The funny thing is that the same people that complain about evil pharmaceutical companies will spend hundreds of dollars on supplements that may be unsafe and ineffective (and in the process, supporting another multi-billion-dollar industry).

    I wrote a post on a similar topic a while ago–check it out of you get time: http://www.chadhayesmd.com/natural-isnt-always-better-but-it-might-be/


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