PHILADELPHIA — PARENTS whose children are admitted to our hospital occasionally bring along something extra to help with their care: dietary supplements, like St. John’s wort to ameliorate mild depression or probiotics for better health.
Here’s the problem: The Joint Commission, which is responsible for hospital accreditation in the United States, requires that dietary supplements be treated like drugs. It makes sense: Vitamins, amino acids, herbs, minerals and other botanicals have pharmacological effects. So they are drugs.
But the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate dietary supplements as drugs — they aren’t tested for safety and efficacy before they’re sold. Many aren’t made according to minimal standards of manufacturing (the F.D.A. has even found some of the facilities where supplements are made to be contaminated with rodent feces and urine). And many are mislabeled, accidentally or intentionally. They often aren’t what they say they are. For example:
In 2003, researchers tested “ayurvedic” remedies from health food stores throughout Boston. They found that 20 percent contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury or arsenic.
In 2008, two products were pulled off the market because they were found to contain around 200 times more selenium (an element that some believe can help prevent cancer) than their labels said. People who ingested these products developed hair loss, muscle cramps, diarrhea, joint pain, fatigue and blisters.
Last summer, vitamins and minerals made by Purity First Health Products in Farmingdale, N.Y., were found to contain two powerful anabolic steroids. Some of the women who took them developed masculinizing symptoms like lower voices and fewer menstrual periods.