Lead, Mercury, Cadmium & Arsenic- Oh My!

by Jeanine Adinaro on May 27, 2010

in Chinese Herbs

An actual case of heavy metal contamination

An actual case of heavy metal contamination

When my husband and I got married 5 years ago, many people had their doubts whether we would make it for two fundemental differences in our beliefs

  • he’s a Yankee’s fan- hello, Red Sox fan here!
  • he’s card-carrying, small-government, fiscal-restraint Republican- and I just wasn’t

But as time passes, and once respectable media outlets like the New York Times continue to run sensationalist crap, I find I am being pulled into the right wing conspiracy.

Specifically, this latest article reported the recent findings of a GAO report on dietary supplements.The first paragraph of the article reads:

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.

Anyone who bothers to continue reading will find in the second paragraph that those tested supplements that contained lead in fact “did not exceed thresholds considered dangerous”. But really, how many readers get to the second paragraph? Not many- that’s why it’s called the lead (no pun intended). The article eventually goes on to educate the public on the basic reason why plant based dietary supplements are going to have trace amounts of heavy metals in them. Lead, and its other heavy metal cousins- mercury, cadmium and arsenic- are naturally occurring elements. They exist in the soil. Plants grow in the soil. The heavy metals are absorbed by plants. If the GAO tested the produce in the grocery store, they would likely find trace amounts of heavy metals as well.

I would like to suggest an alternate lead paragraph:

Nearly all of the herbal dietary supplements tested in a recent Congressional investigation contained safe levels of heavy metal contaminants, and while some supplement sellers made illegal health claims, the industry seems to be effectively self-policing, investigators found.

I also take issue with the factual errors in the article, which even for the New York Times were a lot. For example, the article rightly indicates that the FDA almost never inspects manufacturing plants in China, but explains the reason as “because the agency is not required to do so”. Umm, that and the fact that those manufacturing facilities are in China, not the United States. The FDA has no jurisdiction in China.

The article also reports

The food safety bill expected to be introduced next month in the Senate is likely to mandate that supplement makers register annually with the F.D.A. and allow the agency to recall supplements suspected of being dangerous.

I will admit that I have not waded through all the pages of the food safety bill, but I would point out to the author that both registration of dietary supplement manufacturers is already required and the FDA already has authority to recall supplements suspected of being dangerous. My guess is that the food safety bill is going to extend these provisions to food.

I suppose if I was a conspiracy theorist, I would suggest that the reason the New York Times continues to run articles that portray dietary supplements wholesale as ineffective, dangerous and evil is that quite a lot of its advertisement revenue comes from the pharmaceutical industry. I don’t know, I haven’t paid for a paper copy in a really long time. But since journalism is no longer the unbiased source of information it once was touted to be, readers, beware.

Photo by Tim Bartel

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