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Fear-mongering about vitamin side effects is not uncommon. Federal
conglomerates of the US government have a history of utilizing this
nefarious scare tactic to ascertain their ideological position (see my
other articles on “Supplement Politics”).
While at certain occasions it is more difficult to make out the motivation of the scaremonger(s), for the most part there are a few basic reasons for the activity.
Some cases of fear-mongering about vitamin side effects are due to the scaremongers' ignorance of the subject matter. At other occasions, the fearmongers aim to uphold the mainstream status quo with their rhetoric. In yet other instances, blatant deception is behind it, often for political reasons.
A fearmonger is someone who creates or spreads alarming information with the deliberate intent to shape the views and behavior of the public at large.
While the wide circulation of disquieting news isn't necessarily a destructive action if the information is accurate, more often than not, however, the activity of scaremongering (about nutritional supplements and side effects, for example) attempts to influence public opinions and actions out of a political and ideological orientation, using propaganda (rumors, lies, exaggerations, and myths), and thus it isn't to the advantage of the majority of people.
Categorically negative supplement reviews on vitamin side effects are usually little more than examples of scaremongering. Here is such an example.
“There is a tendency in the public (including physicians) to have a global view of vitamins. If there is bad news about one, it means it is bad for them all.” (Abram Hoffer, MD, PhD, 1917-2009)
The following is my analysis of an essay (Hurley, 2007) called “Diet Supplements and Safety: Some Disquieting Data” by Dan Hurley, which was published in The New York Times, on January 16th, 2007.
Hurley is a fearmonger who's been dispensing horrifying but misleading and incorrect news about vitamin side effects.
"Massive efforts have been taken to convince the public to be wary of dietary supplements." (Bill Sardi, 1945-2022, Health Journalist, in 2009)
Dan Hurley, an award-winning journalist, is one of the fiercest critics of dietary supplements.
Among the various books on nutritional supplements, you can find Hurley's fear-mongering works Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America’s Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry (2006), about “the shocking rise in deaths, disfigurements, and life-threatening injuries caused by products deceptively promoted as 'safe and natural'” (from product description of the book) and which are “often tragically unsafe” (from book cover).
In an essay (Hurley, 2007), adapted from that book, Hurley made numerous misleading statements and comparisons, creating bias, which suggests that Hurley aimed, intentionally, to stir up fear and confusion in people about nutritional supplements. This conclusion is corroborated by the fact that he's an acclaimed investigative reporter... why and how else would a hailed journalist make such conspicuous mistakes?
In his article he referred to the database of the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC). The AAPCC registers and documents, at its many centers around the nation, contacts from the public and from health care professionals after an exposure to a substance (or several of them) led to some type of injury.
Exposure, by the way, implies the “ingestion, inhalation, or topical exposure” to a substance (Lai, et al., 2006).
A couple of things are important to keep in mind when drawing conclusions from only an AAPCC report or when rendering an ultimate authoritative position onto the AAPCC which it does not occupy, as acknowledged by the organization.
The AAPCC distinctly pronounced that:
“[...] data referenced from the AAPCC should not be construed to represent the complete incidence of national exposures to any substance(s).” (Lai, et al., 2006) [emphasis added]
“Case records in this database are from self-reported calls: they reflect only information provided when the public or healthcare professionals report an actual or potential exposure to a substance […]. […]. Additional exposures may go
unreported […]. (Lai, et al., 2006) [emphasis added]
Some people, and some doctors, do not call the AAPCC when a toxic exposure to a substance occurs.
While an AAPCC report is probably a reasonably reliable overall indicator of the (acute) safety or toxicity status of a substance, what is most critical is to portray its data truthfully to draw sound conclusions from it.
Hurley failed at this more than anything else.
A closer examination of the data of the 2005 AAPCC report reveals that Dan Hurley missed some crucial information and erroneously cited or misrepresented data, and thereby painted an inaccurate, false view of the real vitamin dangers.
And...the right perspective is everything.
For instance, Hurley stated that:
“From 1983 to 2004 there were 230 reported deaths from supplements, with the yearly numbers rising from 4 in 1994, the year the supplement bill passed, to a record 27 in 2005.” (Hurley, 2007)
His sensationalistic way of phrasing this implied that taking nutritional supplements had become increasingly dangerous, as the death toll from supplement use is at a “record” number (in 2005).
A more thorough look at the 2005 AAPCC report (Lai, et al., 2006) reveals that a big increase of exposures to substances overall -about threefold, corresponding to population growth and to “increases in the number of participating poison centers”- has been recorded by the AAPCC during the time period between 1983-2005.
As a consequence, adverse reactions, injuries, and deaths increased in total numbers.
Furthermore, and more specific to the topic of vitamin side effects, a much larger percentage of adults were consuming supplements in 2005 than in 1983 (Kelly, et al., 2005; Bailey, et al., 2011), corresponding with a huge increase in the variety of supplements available (Taylor, 2004; Gibson & Taylor, 2005) after the enactment of the DSHEA in 1994 (see the article Dietary Supplement Regulation -Is Supplement Quality Assured?)
These pertinent peripheral facts make, with reasonable certainty, the 27 deaths in 2005 only a “record” number in relative, but not absolute, terms.
In addition, because of...
...supplements, in general, are arguably as safe -if not safer- in 2005,
and especially after the first decade of the 21st century, than in
“How empty is theory in the presence of fact!” (Mark Twain, 1835–1910, American Author)
In his essay, Hurley stated in a hyperbolic style that:
“The supplements with the most exposures in 2005, according to the poison control centers, were ordinary vitamins, accounting for nearly half of all the reports received that year, 62,446, including 1 death.” (Hurley, 2007)
Interestingly, the one vitamin death Hurley was referring to was from an “unknown” vitamin, according to the 2005 AAPCC data (Lai, et al., 2006, page 915). This implies a high degree of uncertainty about the case.
What is certain, according to the 2005 AAPCC data, is this:
Per the 2005 AAPCC report, “the total number of human exposures” to any substance was 2,424,180 (Lai, et al., 2006).
Which means that the 62,446 incidents represent...
... merely 2.6% of all reported exposures among all substances in its database.
The AAPCC report also explains that:
“Exposures do not necessarily represent a poisoning or overdose.” (Lai, et al., 2006)
“Exposures”, in other words, do not always result in serious injuries.
Of maybe the greatest importance in regards to the tens of thousands of vitamin supplement “exposures”, the report by the AAPCC announced that:
“Despite a high frequency of involvement [=exposures], these substances are not necessarily the most toxic, but rather may be the most readily available.” (Lai, et al., 2006) [explanation & emphasis added]
Vitamin supplements are very easily and very widely available.
And, they are taken by over half the US population (Ervin, et al., 1999; Satia-Abouta, et al., 2003; Radimer, et al., 2004; Rock, 2007; Bailey, et al., 2011). (For further information on who and why people take vitamins and health supplements review What Are Nutritional Supplements? Information You MUST Know!)
“Vitamin and mineral supplements have been used for 50 years with a safety history greater than that of any other food product or medication.” (Richard A. Passwater, PhD, Biochemist, in 1991)
The central, bottom-line questions are...
Among all the substances implicated in exposures, which ones are the most toxic? Which agents killed the most people?
In the 2005 report by the AAPCC it says:
“The most common classes of substances involved across all fatalities were analgesics, sedative/hypnotics/antipsychotics, antidepressants and stimulants/street drugs.” (Lai, et al., 2006)
Predominantly, it's pharmaceutical drugs and over-the-counter medications. Not vitamins and health supplements.
Death doesn't lie about what is (more) dangerous.
Death doesn't lie. People do. And organizations (which are made up of people) do.
Unquestionably, most fear-mongering about the dangers of vitamin side effects (including on multivitamin side effects which normally are even less prevalent and serious than vitamin side effects from single element products) is largely a ruse, a myth... a lie.
Most deaths involved a painkilling medication, in particularly acetaminophen, better known as Tylenol®, Advil®, Aleve®, or Panadol® (Lai, et al., 2006), which is widely perceived as a relatively safe substance.
“No amount of evidence will persuade someone who is not listening.” (Abram Hoffer, MD, PhD, 1917-2009)
The overwhelming majority of all reported substance exposures are because of unintentional events (Lai, et al., 2006), largely due to various types of accidents requiring immediate medical assistance.
On the other hand, among all the 1,261 reported fatalities of 2005, “the vast majority” (over 75%), “as in past years”, were because of intentional reasons of conduct, whereby 50% of all deaths are due to suicide -a rate which has been very steady since 1985 (Lai, et al., 2006).
The intentional use of acetaminophen was mostly to commit suicide. (And many suicides, or suicide attempts, are likely related to the consumption of serotonin-activating pharmaceutical medications, such as SSRI antidepressants -see my article Tryptophan Side Effects: L-Tryptophan Is Far From Harmless.)
Drugs (both legal and illegal) are the preferred choice to end one's life.
Not food supplements.
If the dangers of vitamin side effects were so serious, if nutritional supplements were known to be highly unsafe and toxic in actual reality (=fact), as Hurley (and others) likes to portray them, they'd be on top of the list of eligible and favored suicide agents...
...especially since both supplements and acetaminophen are classes of substances that are readily available.
And since more than half of the US population takes supplements it would be easy for just about anyone to “swallow a bottle of vitamins” to commit suicide.
... that's not what people who contemplate suicide choose to do (and you probably wouldn't either).
Do I need to say more?
"The safety of vitamins has been clearly demonstrated by the toxicological literature and further by the experience of orthomolecular physicians over the past forty years." (Abram Hoffer, MD, PhD, 1917-2009, in 2003)
In actuality, the AAPCC data is strong “circumstantial evidence” in support of the extraordinary overall safety of nutritional supplements, respectively of the relative low risk from vitamin side effects.
Among the 27 deaths Hurley mentioned, (at least) three deaths were caused by a mix of different substances (melatonin, conceivably with the goal to induce sleep in an “intentional suicide” case involving rubbing alcohol and insulin), another suicide was connected to prescription drugs, along with glucosamine, and one case involved alcohol in combination with two types of herbs.
In approximately half of all fatalities in 2005 a single substance was the culprit (Lai, et al., 2006).
The addition and presence of the dietary supplement ingredients surrounding these deaths mentioned above had potentially a rather minor effect on the demise of the person. It appears that in several of the 27 deaths some ingredients of these nutritional supplements were simply victims of “guilty by association”.
The most deaths any single health supplement ingredient was involved in, alone and/or in combination with other substances, was 4 (potassium and melatonin).
Acetaminophen, in combination with other agents, killed 187 people, and as a single agent it caused 48 deaths (Lai, et al., 2006). This makes acetaminophen multiple times more dangerous or deadly than any ingredient found in a dietary supplement in 2005.
Moreover, Hurley reported that:
“Essential oils were linked to 7,282 reports and no deaths.” (Hurley, 2007)
This is incorrect. On page 828 of the 2005 AAPCC report it lists that one person died from an “adverse reaction” to essential oils (Lai, et al., 2006).
Hurley further implies, from his interpretation of the AAPCC data, that when drugs are used as prescribed they cause less harm than the recommended use of certain types of nutritional supplements, such as herbs and homeopathic remedies.
However, the proper use of prescription drugs kills over 100,000 people every year in the United States alone (Dean, et al, 2003), relegating Hurley's assessment to nothing but a false, misleading, utterly biased, and morally reprehensible insinuation. (For my discussion on the staggering harm caused by pharmaceutical medications read the article Health Risks Of Dietary Supplements -The Proper Perspective).
It bears repeating, the number of deaths from supplements is small compared, for instance, to mortality figures from the ingestion of Tylenol or even aspirin, and it is very tiny compared to the hundred thousand plus deaths caused by prescription drugs, every year.
“A lot of people go through life trying to prove that the things that are good for them are wrong." (Ward Cleaver, Fictional Television Character)
Hurley's misrepresentation of the data prompted The New York Times to release an addendum (The New York Times, 2007), correcting Hurley's misuse of the AAPCC data base three weeks later. The Times article remarked that Hurley:
“[...] overstated the number of adverse reactions to supplements reported in the [2005 AAPCC] database.” (The New York Times, 2007) [explanation added]
Demonstrably, Hurley isn't exactly a reliable resource for nutritional supplement information, particularly not on the true scope of vitamin side effects.
It begs the question what else in Hurley's book (or other accounts of his in connection to dietary supplements) is misrepresented and falsified?
Because of Hurley's faulty, deceptive misrepresentation of nutritional supplements in just one essay derived from his book, I get the sense that it is a waste of my time to review his entire book on the subject. I'm inclined to doubt the quality of his investigative research is of higher significance and integrity.
Hurley is an award-winning journalist. What for? His great writing style? His persuasiveness? Obviously, it cannot be for the accurate reporting of the facts about vitamins -especially not about the harm caused by vitamin side effects.
(Originally published: Aug-2012)
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Recommended next page(s):
Article Index On The Politics Of Nutritional Supplements
-How You Get Deceived & Misled
-Revealing Hidden Facts About Vitamins & Supplements