By Philip A. Pappas, Ph.D.
Approximately, once a month someone will come to Earth Foods, my health food store, and ask this question. “How do I know if these supplements are safe”? They might repeat unfounded information from a friend or relative, with no expertise or training, about the hazards of supplements. They often have vague undocumented stories of individuals they may not even know who may have had side effects associated with supplements.
Generally, my customers are knowledgeable and their questions are specific. I don’t mind trying to educate and help if someone is truly interested. I always admit my lack of knowledge about a subject and let others educate me. You can learn a lot from a knowledgeable person. It really is important to help with questions about safety.
Now let us look at the question, “How do I know if these supplements are safe”? It is a fact that about 80% percent of supplements in the US market are made in America, with an additional 15% made in Japan, Canada, England, France and Germany. Some raw ingredients are grown successfully in only one location. An example would be “mastic gum”, the antimicrobial ulcer-healing supplement found only on one tiny island in the Mediterranean. We cannot produce and grow everything in America. Most Americans have no idea that 80% percent of US prescription drugs are produced oversees mostly in Asia, with minimal supervision and no FDA nearby. Very few Americans question that fact or worry about quality control, because we think the government is protecting us.
However, our government may not be doing its job as well as we think. Children in Asia, often in hamlets without electric, water or sewage, fill many US mail order prescriptions everyday. America has not had that low level of quality control since the early 1900’s, not to mention child labor. Most individuals are not aware of the many recalls of fresh and processed foods contaminated with toxins, pesticides, bacteria, and dangerous preservative chemicals. We generally give little thought to our drinking water contaminated with deadly chemicals, mercury, and the metabolites of all pharmaceutical products ever made. Very few Americans have read the 2010 report from the President’s Cancer Panel (Bush error), which suggests that the approximately 80,000 untested chemicals in our environment poses dangerous health consequences for the unborn.
In fact, most carcinogens we consume, inhale, or touch on a daily basis are unregulated and under no government oversight. The reason for this is that corporations pay for key senator’s and congressional representative’s re-elections. These elected officials help block and interfere with costly safety regulations, corporations try to avoid. The conservative majority members of the US Supreme Court in 2010 found, that corporations and labor unions, have a right to influence elected officials with money for their election and re-elections. This makes every individual’s vote and status that of a second-class citizen. In the name of free speech, the court ignored the conflict of interest created by the election money and corporate profits. This leaves the safety of adults and children to the mercy of CEO’s, who do not represent Americans and often produce their products in other countries.
When you look at safety, it helps to compare the existing standards. There should not be significant differences in safety among products when it comes to human life. So let us look at health care as the safety model. The US averages 225,000 iatrogenic (doctor or hospital caused) deaths annually, including 106,000 from prescription medications, done under Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation. There are 1.5 million US medication injuries requiring emergency room care each year, (Johns Hopkins University 2006), and more than 5,000 US deaths from food borne illness each year. The FDA claims (but did not medically prove) that on average each year possibly five individuals die from supplement use. No one has ever died from vitamin C, E, folic acid or any B Vitamins. The FDA has always regulated supplements as food (they are not drugs) and supplements are a lot safer than food or drugs according to the government’s own statistics. Of course, some athletes for example, have abused substances they obtained illegally. However, that has nothing to do with the products sold in the health food store. Those products were illegally manufactured and distributed in a similar way to street drugs. We all know the government’s success or lack of success, in controlling street drugs. Dealing street drugs is the most lucrative tax-free business in America. Illegal drug sale run far ahead of prescription sales every year.
Another interesting statistic of note can be found in “Is US Health Really the Best in the World?”, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and written by Barbara Starfield, MD, MPH. In this paper Dr. Starfield gives the following statistics:
- 7,000 deaths occur each year due to medication errors in hospitals
- 12,000 deaths occur each year due to unnecessary surgery
- 20,000 deaths occur each year due to other hospital errors
- 80,000 deaths occur each year due to nosocomial infections in hospitals
- 106,000 deaths occur each year due to adverse effects to properly prescribed medications
This equals 225,000 deaths due to iatrogenic causes. This would be the third leading cause of death in America – just above cerebrovascular diseases at 162,672 deaths. Dr. Leape of the Harvard School of Medicine said, “Medicine is now a high risk industry, like aviation. But, the chance of dying in an aviation accident is one in 2 million, while the risk of dying from a medical accident is one in 200!”- Dr. Leape of the Harvard Medical School of Public Health If this many people died in a third world country we would call it a holocaust. Here we call it our medical system, ranked 37th in the world by the World Health Organization.
Do we ask our doctors, hospitals and pharmacists if what they do is safe? Do we ask to see the infection rate of the hospital when we are admitted? Do we ask for the health department’s report before we dine at a restaurant? Of course, we don’t and if we did, the doctor might refuse to treat us, the restaurant would call the police, and the hospital would charge us for a psychiatric consult. However, there are always questions about the safety of herbs and supplements, made in America by Americans under the safest and cleanest conditions anywhere in the world with a record of safety second to no other industry in the America. It might make more sense to question the safety of industries that actually injure and kill individuals. Maybe those dangerous industries need more regulation to protect Americans.
So when you buy something at a health food store, what is your risk? According to the government and private statistics, virtually none. You stand a significantly greater chance of being hit by lightening. So what is the concern with safety? People are human and they believe what they are told and parrot that information to others. The very essence of commercial marketing is that if you say something often enough, it becomes a fact. It does not need to be true or accurate to become a fact. When the Catholic Church said the world was flat, Western Europe believed it even though the Greeks and Arabs had calculated the circumference of the earth centuries earlier. Bertrand Russell expressed this best when he said, “Men are born ignorant, not stupid, they are made stupid by education.” We are told what someone needs us to believe and what benefits them. Questioning what we are told, however often puts us at risk.
What about all of the press coverage on PCB contamination found in fish oil supplements? Fish oil supplements are allowed one part per trillion of PCB. For baby formula, that standard is nine parts per billion. I guess since babies don’t talk they cannot complain. Fresh fish allows 200 parts per billion. Fish oil supplements are one of the safest products on earth. In fact, most US states don’t have the equipment necessary to measure that standard of safety.
So what about herbs, herbal medicine, and all the dangers they present? I’m tired of hearing individuals, broadcasters, doctors, nurses and teachers calling herbal medicine “alternative”. Alternative means, “outside the establishment or mainstream, rarely used, undocumented or untested, and often presented as being less effective.” In fact, herbs are used in medicine worldwide; at a rate six times that of prescription drugs daily. The US which is 5% of the world’s population, uses 60% of the world production of pharmaceuticals each year. This means that most drug production is for American consumption. Americans then suffer most of the side effects complications and deaths. Oddly, countries that have free access to prescription drugs use much less of them. Herbs hurt and kill no one, while medications injure and kill thousand of people daily. Chemical medicine is only sixty or seventy years old. Herbs have been around for over 10,000 years. Herbal medicine therefore is not the alternative, but pharmaceuticals are by definition.
Now I would like to mention toxicity. Toxicity, is defined as; 1. degree of poisonousness, or 2. capability to poison somebody. In medicine, toxic is a good replacement word for poison because it is less scary. More than ninety-nine percent of all drugs have a measurable toxic level. The FDA requires pharmaceutical companies to test and report that level. You can find that level in the package information for each drug. In most cases, the toxic level for most supplements would be impossible to measure using existing techniques because of the volume of product necessary. In other words, it is next to impossible to hurt yourself with supplements because they are only toxic at outrageous volume or not at all. In addition, supplements generally cause diarrhea or vomiting long before any harmful level can be reached. However, every time you ingest a drug you are being poisoned in micro levels. Many drugs require periodic blood work to avoid toxicity because the toxins build up to dangerous levels with time. This is why supplements are extremely safe and drugs are inherently dangerous.
How good are drug store or big box store supplements? Quality supplements at health food stores are manufactured and shipped quickly to fill the orders. They cannot sit on loading docks or in hot warehouses. Supplements are often fragile and become useless or possibly harmful when not handled correctly. Fish oil and probiotics are two examples of supplements that require special handling. Drug store chains and big box stores contract with the cheapest large volume generic manufacturers, not necessarily American, to produce significant profit margins on cheap supplements. The large volume production requires possibly months of warehousing and often long travel time in hot trucks. Fish and flax seed oil are worthless and even dangerous when handled this way. If you were trying to improve your health, why would you buy poor quality products? Health food stores receive shipments directly and quickly from manufactures with proper handling. Probiotics for example are shipped cold and in insulated packaging when necessary. Many other products need special handling.
So, are the supplements at your independent health food store safe? Are the supplements I give my clients safe? The answer is yes. Supplements are an important tool for those who care about their health. Well, I got a lot off my chest. Sure, someone is going to ask me that “safety” question again very soon. Now I can smile and refer them my article.
Dr. Pappas is a certified nutritionist with 20 years of experience in natural health. He also has 25 years of experience in the health care industry. To learn more about Dr. Pappas and his Natural Food Store in Bucks County, PA
Please visit his site at: http://www.earthfoods.us
or call 1-215-794-5311
or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Earth Foods is more than your regular natural food store, they offer a wide range of products and services not found in most natural and health food stores.
Copyright – Dr. Phil Pappas – used with permission.