Mainstream Media Reporting Lies - Herbal Heavy Metals

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Mainstream Media Reporting Lies - Herbal Heavy Metals

Another blatant lie, reported with aplomb in mainstream media, was the one from last week {~May 25 2010} where they took a US Senate report and turned it into a reason to never take a natural health supplement ever again.

Maybe you heard it?

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"

The problem with those headlines is that the actual report said nothing like that. The study found that 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.

Trace amounts!! That is what you get in the food you eat everyday, nothing even close to dangerous, and totally unavoidable unless you quit eating altogether. Of course those trace amounts of heavy metals were found in supplements, no cause for alarm.

The media reports were using words like "supplements LACED with heavy metals" until an advocacy group in the US got them to remove it. Link to ANH-USA, the advocacy group>

And, I just have to point out that there were about 100,000 deaths per year in the USA due to pharmaceutical drugs, used as directed, as compared to ZERO deaths from natural health supplements in 2008 [the most recent year the stats cover].

 quote: The Journal of the American Medical Association recently reported that As many as 106,000 deaths occur annually in US hospitals due to adverse reactions to prescription drugs that are properly prescribed by physicians that use them as directed by the drug companies.


Timebandit Timebandit's picture

Noah, the articles you linked to make some very biased assertions relating to the motivation of the FDA regarding holding herbal supplement to the same standards as drugs if the seller is making claims that the herbal supplement cures or treats a specific disease.  In fact, by exempting herbal remedies, you open the door to looser regulation of pharmaceutical companies.

Also, I'll post a link from a more mainstream source of media which doesn't claim that the heavy metals were in greater than trace amounts, except for a breath freshener.  It does, however point out that there are issues that even supplement industry organizations acknowledge as problematic in regard to regulation.  Re the trace amounts -- the question that immediately leaps to my mind is:  Why is it okay for "natural" remedies to have trace amounts of mercury, lead and the the like, when the "natural health" crowd routinely lose their hair over some vaccines having very small trace amounts of an easily-excretable form of mercury in vaccines?

Here's a take on the report from a pharmacologist:

ETA:  We likely don't have stats for the numbers of people who die by delaying or refusing treatment for serious health issues because they're going for the "natural treatments".

Life, the unive...

Many of these 'natural' products (and I say this as someone who has been farming organically for over two decades) are not grown 'naturally' certainly not organically.  Herbs, vegetables and legumes are very effcient at taking up elements into the soil and incorporating them into their structure.  So when large scale production takes place it often means sewage sludge, industrialized liquid hog and dairy manure and similar practices that I would argue are not 'natural'.

That's not saying that herbal remedies are not preferable - that's certainly my belief- but simple recogition that the system is not quite so pure as it lets on.


Thanks for replying. TimeBandit, I don't know why anyone would be an apologist for the PharmaGiants after all their crimes against humanity, but that doesn't mean you don't have a point.

"easily excreteable mercury in vaccines" is something you have to explain to me, and don't forget to mention the excretory properties of supplement mercury so we can compare.

{really, I am just looking for the truth here, it is just that I have never found anything to justifiy the PharmaGiant's deadly record}

I remember reading that vaccines typically have 25 mcg of mercury {Micrograms = 1 millionth of a gram, eh} per dose.

Lets look, here are the figures from the article { the amounts are for the whole bottle I presume? }

Quote: "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. "

and, for comparison: Milk has 1.2 mcg per serving.


Soooo, ya. 1 mcg per serving of food or per bottle of supplements, which is "basic background levels found in nature", Vs the 25 mcg per dose of vaccine, TIMES about 30 shots for kids today...

Do you agree with these figures? Do you still say vaccines are safer, mercury wise, as supplements? 10 bottles of supplements? 100?


Timebandit Timebandit's picture

This has been covered in the innumerable anti-vax threads that have been on babble in the last 6 mos or so.  Anyway, a quick recap:  Methyl mercury is the form of mercury found in tuna and other fish and that tends to build up in your system.  Ethyl mercury is used in thimerosol, a vaccine preservative.  Ethyl mercury is excreted from the body within 24 hours, IIRC.  It does not remain in your system and build up like methyl mercury.  Single dose vaccines have not used thimerosol since 2001.  Thimerosol was used in multi-dose bottles of flu vaccines to speed production during the H1N1 pandemic.  So yes, I do think vaccines are safer than supplements, but not because of mercury - because they're more rigorously regulated, and supplements are not. 

Now, I'd like to note that the mainstream media article I linked to did not claim heavy metals were dangerously high in supplements.  That really was my point.  Mentioning vaccines was merely to point out that, if it's methyl mercury we're talking about and if the only acceptable level of mercury is none, then it fascinates me that an organization with antivaxxers on its board of directors is a little odd.  I'm curious why mercury is okay in supplements, but not in vaccines.  Also, why not regulate herbal remedies that claim cures?  Where's the harm in that?  If it works, they've nothing to fear. 

The other point is that herbal supplements is a $4 billion dollar industry in the US alone.  Do you really think this industry is any more or less likely to value the bottom line than the pharmaceutical industry?

Oh, and nice gambit on the "apologist for BigPharma" bit.  But I make no excuses for them - I simply don't make excuses for the other guys either.

BTW, how much do you know about ANH-USA?  Are you sure they're not a front organization?  Lots of industries use them, you know.


Sure, I agree - the ANH represents natural health products, and is therefore suspect of pandering to money. However, the $4 billion per year is peanuts compared to PharmaGiants profits, so if you are suggesting a "ratio of money to corruption", I would take you on! {sorry, I don't mean to sound threatening}


Meanwhile, the ANH has won another victory over the FDA about censorship on information about supplements, particularly Selenium and how it reduces prostate cancer tumours.


" the decision restricts the Agency's ability to place gag orders on the emerging science behind healthy foods and dietary supplements."

Someone said that this suggests the FDA's positions on natural health products is all about protecting the Pharmaceutical industry by getting in the way of any and all natural health products that could reduce the Pharma profits...


Ahhh, so the FDA was getting it wrong, and the courts said so. Good stuff. Right the wrongs - I know you will agree with me there.





Legal talk from the Leagle team [spelled that way on purpose]:


Quote: "[the] defendants [were/are] seeking review of the Agency's decision to deny plaintiffs' petition for authorization of qualified health claims regarding selenium-containing dietary supplements."

....the studies' authors stated that they "found a statistically significant inverse association between pre-diagnostic plasma selenium levels and the risk of advanced prostate cancer." (AR 001697.) Further, among men with "increased PSA levels at baseline," the authors found that "higher levels of selenium were associated with a reduced risk of all prostate cancer."
...the Court concludes that the Agency erred in finding that the study "show[s] no reduction in [prostate cancer] risk."


Timebandit Timebandit's picture

The decision at the site states the conclusion on the selenium claim (note:  the decision refers to it as a qualified claim) had this conclusion:

Agency's analysis of the scientific evidence submitted in support of this claim,[ 30 ] the Agency's replacement claim mischaracterizes at least one study (Li et al), suggesting that the FDA's proposed claim is inaccurate. As such, the Court will remand plaintiffs' prostate claim to the FDA for the purpose of reconsidering the scientific literature and drafting one or more short, succinct, and accurate disclaimers in light of that review.

This means that the court has sent the qualified claim back to the FDA for more appropriate rewording. It does not mean that supplement manufacturers have carte blanche to tout selenium as a prostate cancer cure. As well they shouldn't - I found the study that it seems they are referring to on PubMed:

A prospective study of plasma selenium levels and prostate cancer risk.
Li H, Stampfer MJ, Giovannucci EL, Morris JS, Willett WC, Gaziano JM, Ma J.

Channing Laboratory, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA.

Comment in:

J Natl Cancer Inst. 2004 May 5;96(9):645-7.

BACKGROUND: Epidemiologic studies suggest that low selenium levels are associated with an increased incidence of prostate cancer, although results are conflicting. We examined the association between pre-diagnostic plasma selenium levels and risk of prostate cancer in men enrolled in the Physicians' Health Study. METHODS: Using plasma samples obtained in 1982 from healthy men enrolled in the study, we conducted a nested case-control study among 586 men diagnosed with prostate cancer during 13 years of follow-up and 577 control subjects. Odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for the risk of prostate cancer in pre- (before October 1990) and post- (after October 1990) prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening eras were calculated using multivariable logistic regression. RESULTS: Pre-diagnostic plasma selenium levels were inversely associated with risk of advanced prostate cancer (5th versus 1st quintile OR = 0.52, 95% CI = 0.28 to 0.98; P(trend) =.05), even among men diagnosed after 1990 (5th versus 1st quintile OR = 0.39, 95% CI = 0.16 to 0.97). The inverse association with prostate cancer risk was observed only for case subjects with elevated baseline PSA levels (PSA >4 ng/mL, 5th versus 1st quintile OR = 0.49, 95% CI = 0.28 to 0.86; P(trend) =.002). These inverse associations were observed in both pre- and post-PSA eras. CONCLUSIONS: The inverse association between baseline plasma selenium levels and risk of advanced prostate cancer, even among men diagnosed during the post-PSA era, suggests that higher levels of selenium may slow prostate cancer tumor progression. Ongoing randomized trials of selenium supplements may help to further evaluate this issue.

The authors themselves note that selenium supplementation, not just selenium levels, still needs to be studied.

So this doesn't look much like the "stunning victory" touted in your original link. It's asking for a rewording of a qualification that selenium supplement manufacturers have to use. It's not a removal of restriction at all, merely a refining of the qualification that was originally proposed.

The more I look at you original link, the more my spidey senses tingle. You're looking at scale in comparison to the pharmaceutical industry, but any industry that deals in billions of dollars (again, in the US alone - not accounting for the rest of the Western world, where you are looking at billions more dollars) is prone to do some fascinating things in terms of protecting its bottom line.

Here's a definition of a front organization:

In my opinion, this group fits the profile pretty closely. Some industry sponsors admitted, but there's a lot of money in the advocacy that this group takes part in. Lobbying, on behalf of an industry. Claims of grassroots support. Little indication of actual membership numbers. A board of directors with high profile in altmed, most of them purveyors of altmed and herbal supplements themselves. Just scratching my head here. Things that make you go "Hmmmm..."