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Study: Dangerously High Arsenic Levels Found in 'Vital Living and Well-being' Herbal Sea Kelp Supplements

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UC DAVIS, California -- A study of herbal kelp supplements led by UC Davis public health expert Marc Schenker concludes that its medicinal use may cause inadvertent arsenic poisoning and health dangers for consumers, especially when overused. Schenker and two researchers evaluated nine over-the-counter herbal kelp products and found higher than acceptable arsenic levels in eight of them.

The new study, published in the April issue of Environmental Health Perspectives was prompted by the case of a 54-year-old woman who was seen at the UC Davis Occupational Medicine Clinic following a two-year history of worsening alopecia (hair loss), fatigue and memory loss.

The woman's symptoms had begun with minor memory loss and fatigue. Her primary care physician initially found nothing wrong with the woman and thought the symptoms were related to menopause.

With no specific diagnosis or treatment recommendations, the patient started taking a variety of herbal therapies, including a kelp supplement, fish oil, ginkgo biloba and grape seed extract. The kelp supplement was the only herbal therapy she took regularly throughout the course of her illness.

Over a period of several months the woman's short- and long-term memory became so impaired that she could no longer remember her home address. She also reported having a rash, nausea and vomiting, which made it very difficult to work and forced her to leave a full-time job. The woman actually increased her dosage of kelp from two to four pills a day after her doctors still could not find a clear diagnosis.

Subsequent laboratory tests finally revealed arsenic in the patient's blood and urine. At her physician's suggestion, the patient discontinued the kelp supplement. Within weeks, her symptoms disappeared, and within several months arsenic was no longer detected in her urine and its levels had dropped significantly in her blood. She later was referred to the UC Davis Occupational Medicine Clinic as a follow-up to her primary care.

"It's unfortunate that a therapy that's advertised as contributing to 'vital living and well-being' would contain potentially unsafe levels of arsenic," said Schenker, who is a professor of Public Health Sciences and a leading authority on occupational and environmental diseases and respiratory illness. "Concentrations of materials contained in herbal supplements, including both the expected benefits and potential side effects, should be studied, standardized, monitored and accurately labeled."

To assess the concentration of arsenic present in commercially available kelp supplements, the UC Davis investigators purchased nine over-the-counter kelp samples from local health food stores. Included were samples from three different batches of the product consumed by the patient.

The researchers sent the samples to the California Animal Health & Food Safety Laboratory in Davis, which operates in partnership with UC Davis, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and others to provide specialized testing that helps protect both human and animal health. Investigators found detectable levels of arsenic in eight of the nine kelp supplements by using a hydride vapor generation method with an inductively coupled argon plasma spectrometer. Seven of the supplements exceeded the tolerance levels for food products set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"Part of the problem," said Schenker, "is that the FDA has limited control over dietary supplements. It can't scrutinize products like herbal kelp before they enter the market, so it has to rely on adverse reports to determine product safety."

He noted that none of the kelp products in the study had labels indicating the presence of arsenic, nor were there any warnings about the potential dangers of ingesting large quantities of the supplement.

Arsenic is a heavy metal that occurs naturally in the environment and as a by-product of some agricultural and industrial activities. Due to high arsenic concentrations in algae and marine micro-organisms, seafood is the highest dietary source of arsenic for consumers. While long-term human exposure to arsenic from food sources such as fish does occur, it is usually significantly lower than anything approaching toxic levels. How-ever, dietary supplements, which are largely unregulated, have raised health concerns.

There have been a number of published studies highlighting cases in which the uses of homeopathic remedies to relieve everything from asthma to rheumatoid arthritis have caused arsenic poisoning. Schenker's findings offer a cautionary tale for consumers who use herbal treatments and dietary supplements. The kelp samples analyzed in the study had consistently elevated levels of arsenic, but they were considerably lower than previously documented concentrations found in other herbal remedies.

"What concerns me," said Schenker, "is that chronic exposure to contaminated herbal supplements, even those with moderately elevated concentrations of arsenic, can still be toxic. Consumers won't find such label information on these products, so they could end up like that woman in our study who consumed dangerously high amounts of a toxic substance without realizing it."

The complete article -- entitled "A Case of Potential Arsenic Toxicity Secondary to Herbal Kelp Supplement," is co-authored by Eric Amster, from the UC Davis School of Medicine, and Asheesh Tiwary, from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and the California Animal Health & Food Safety Laboratory System.

Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of, its staff or its advertisers.

Reader Comments

5 people have commented so far. cloud add your comment

I would just like to say that your article is more scary than taking the pills you are talking about!!! If you are going to publish and article, you should possibly include the names and brands that were tested!!!! Are you saying all Kelp pills are bad or just a few?? I would say that some are safer than others!! You should be more informative in your work!!! Instead of leaving people scared to take their supplements!!!!
   comment# 1   - Missy · Jones Island, usa · Dec 15, 2008 @ 9:33pm

only one other person posted? over 2 months ago? so who reads this but one other late nighter. Pshaw! who you working for? fda?
   comment# 2   - j.d.baird · shawnee, usa · Feb 25, 2009 @ 11:34pm

the 54 yr old woman was taking four times the daily dose listed on the label. arsenic occurs naturally in the environment and we are consuming it every day anyway. do you want to shine a microscope on the air we breathe and the water we drink? we all live in this chemical soup of our own making and only we can change it. don't worry about one chemical when we're swimming in even scarier ones than arsenic!
   comment# 3   - elizabeth · toronto, canada · Jun 12, 2009 @ 5:23pm

I want to thank you for the heads up. I have ordered kelp online which I hope will increase my energy levels and metabolism rate and also help cure excema. Now I know to be careful to use it with caution. I wonder if there are foods we can eat or drink that would combine with heavy metals and help to flush them out of the body on a daily basis. Also, I have been wondering for years, since many of us no longer use table salt, and since processed foods use salt which most often does not contain iodine, where will our iodine come from? How are we going to solve the problem which initially led the government to mandate adding iodine to table salt?
   comment# 4   - Cathy · Sunderland, MA USA · Feb 24, 2010 @ 5:53pm

I'm deeply dissapointed in j.d.baird's comment because it does matter whether or not you're pre-disposed to chemicals. That comment is the equilvalent to someone saying don't wear seat belts or lets intentionally harm ourselves , etc. That lady's life was threatened more than if she probably didn't know what she was taking was harming her. I think this is a great benefit to people as a society to be informed about the products they choose and have a choice to know what is actually in the products you use and what you buy with money you worked and put your time frm this life to use. It's just not ethical how they didn't label their products or regulate oit. Just like how they started to label potential murcury risks if you eat tuna, or the time when it was reported that imported seafood might not be regulated for it's farmed or it's toxicity effects. We have a right as consumers to know what we're buying where it's coming form to what's in there to how it's grown or farmed.. Thanks for the article.
   comment# 5   - Chris · Portland, OR · Mar 13, 2011 @ 5:38pm
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