Guest Post: “Perception is Power: How the Supplement Industry Bought Deregulation” by Tien Nguyen
Oct15

Guest Post: “Perception is Power: How the Supplement Industry Bought Deregulation” by Tien Nguyen

Today’s guest post is from Tien Nguyen, an organic chemistry grad student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Tien is passionate about science outreach through the printed word, social media, and multimedia. On Twitter @mustlovescience and at her blog Must Love Science, she posts about timely chemistry topics and showcases the educational videos about chemistry that she helps create, including “The Fresh Bread of Bel-Air”. She is also a regular contributor to the RSC Catalysis Science & Technology Blog. Here she discusses a chapter of a new book that’s galvanized her views on science communication. Take it away, Tien! In 2008, more than 200 people were poisoned by massive doses of selenium in liquid multivitamin supplements, Total Body Formula and Total Body Mega Formula. One of the victims was a telephone repairman named John Adams. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Adams experienced severe loss of hair, fingernails and toenails and fatigue. He eventually became too exhausted to work and was forced to retire. Other symptoms of selenium poisoning include diarrhea, joint pain, cramps and blistering skin. The FDA found that on average each Total Body serving contained 40,800 micrograms instead of 200 micrograms as planned. Nearly 50,000 supplement related adverse health effects are reported each year. Most supplements, like the Total Body Formula multivitamins, have not undergone any safety testing nor were they required to by law. That’s because almost 20 years ago, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, establishing that dietary supplements—vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars (materials from animal organs, glands or tissues) and metabolites—do not have to submit to FDA safety testing before being available to the public. Referring to the Act’s passage, author Dan Hurley wrote, “So began an unprecedented experiment to test whether the unbridled use of vitamins and other supplements would help or hinder health, with the American public as the guinea pig.” As long as a supplement is labelled as such and includes a disclaimer stating the lack of approval from the FDA, the bottle is cleared for supermarket shelves. If, after wide circulation, the supplement causes adverse health effects, like organ failure or death, the FDA can step in and pull it off the market. Say what? Oh, you didn’t know supplements were totally exempt from pre-market safety regulations? Neither did 68 percent of Americans, according to a 2002 Harris poll. Nor did I, until earlier this year when I reviewed Paul Offit’s new book, “Do you Believe in Magic: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.” He dedicates a chapter to the DSHEA, setting the stage with a...

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The Medical Metals of Yesterday
Jun14

The Medical Metals of Yesterday

SeeArrOh stumbles upon a book that's something of a chemistry time capsule when it comes to metals and disease. SeeArrOh is a Ph.D. chemist working in industry. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – Nietzsche “The dose makes the poison” – Paracelsus When we look back at ancient medicine, we view the treatments once espoused as cures to be near-barbaric: bloodletting, bodily humours, exorcism, even red-hot coins on the skin. Luckily, the advent of the 20th Century brought pharmaceutical companies, sanitation, and well-managed hospital facilities, escapes from the painful and potentially fatal cures of long ago. Modern medicine would never lead us down the path to poison, would it? Maybe we didn’t leave everything from that time behind. While browsing our company bookshelves, I happened across a book entitled The Story of Chemistry with a burlap-brown cover and a thick coat of dust. Published in 1929 by a Mr. Floyd L. Darrow, it pre-dates Chemical Reviews, covering most of the 1920s in medical, agricultural, and synthetic chemistry. To calibrate you to the time period, remember that WWII had not yet occurred, so WWI is referred to as “the Great War”, and the language of science writing waxed a bit poetic, such that the author draws comparisons between “fields of endeavor” and “[the] waters of the Niagara.” I won’t try to cover all 528 pages, but I was drawn in by Chapter VII, called “Chemistry and Disease.” The author details all of the stunning advances of the late ‘20s, including the isolation of the 4(!) major Vitamins (A-D, with no extra “B-#s”, or E, or K), thyroxine, and steroids, though few chemists knew enough about the structure of these compounds to try rational drug design. (Three of the Vitamins (B1, C, D) would be synthesized in the 1930s. Poor Vitamin A had to wait until 1947.) Enter Paul Ehrlich, who won the 1908 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his “magic bullet” theory of disease treatment and the first preparation of “specifics,” or chemicals used to kill a single microorganism from among many. Salvarsan, his pioneering treatment for syphilis, was originally called arsphenamine, and contained a diarsenic core. (This was shown in 2005 to be a cyclic analogue of 5 arsenic atoms.) Back then, organoarsenics were not generally recognized as toxic to humans, and scientists would go on to synthesize several other modified versions until more tolerable therapies, such as the sulfa drugs in the 1930s, could be produced. Just two pages past Ehrlich, the author dives into more on the “specifics” of the day, including some high praise for mercurochrome. Originally derived from one of the coal tar...

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