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DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS MAY BE KILLERS

Washington - Mounting evidence suggests that increasing numbers of Americans are falling seriously ill or even dying after taking dietary supplements that promise everything from extra energy to sounder sleep, The Washington Post reported on Sunday.

The victims include men and women of all ages as well as children whose parents are feeding them snacks, drinks and nostrums made with herbal supplements that are neither regulated by the federal government nor tested for their effects on the young.

While the Food and Drug Administration issues periodic warnings about the dangers of individual supplements, no organisation or agency has ever made a comprehensive analysis of the sickness and death associated with them.

But in attempting the first national survey, The Washington Post collected statistical snapshots from health officials throughout America. Among the findings:

  • Abuse of the bodybuilding supplement gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) and similar substances has skyrocketed in recent years.

  • Tests continue to reveal dangerous contaminants and poor quality control in supplement ingredients. California investigators in 1998 found that nearly one-third of 260 imported Asian herbals were either spiked with drugs not listed on the label or contained lead, arsenic or mercury.
    Last month, state officials discovered five Chinese herbals that contained powerful diabetes drugs. Health professionals across the country complain they cannot be sure how powerful a supplement is because the actual potency of the pill often doesn't match the legend on the label.

  • The weight-loss and energy supplement ephedra, also known as ma huang, and its derivatives are producing a stream of complaints from many states, including Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

    New, previously unreleased FDA data implicates about two dozen different ephedra products in 134 cases involving everything from jitteriness, chest pains and insomnia to addiction, stroke and death.

  • Poison control centres in various states are reporting adverse reactions to a broad range of supplements. Pittsburgh documented 198 incidents involving herbal supplements in the 15 months ending last March, with ginseng and St John's wort, an antidepressant, the most frequently mentioned substances.

    In Georgia, ephedra and melatonin, a sleep aid, led the list in 1999. In New Mexico, St John's wort ranked first in 1998, followed by a compound that eases teething pain in infants.

  • Children are increasingly becoming the victims of supplement abuse. Last year paediatrician Hillary Perr reported on children from wealthy California families who were malnourished from eating snack food spiked with supplements.

    In Long Island, a mother gave her 18-month-old baby a teaspoon of eucalyptus oil last year because a store clerk told her it was good for a fever. The child suffered permanent neurological damage and almost died. - Sapa-DPA

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