A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

What's the harm? No. 6

These links and comments illustrate the harm done by occult, paranormal, pseudoscientific, and supernatural beliefs. The harm may be tangible and easily documented: physical, financial, or interpersonal.

Can 22 billion flies be wrong?

Within China, quality control and food safety regulations tend to be lax or non-existent, and consumers have to be constantly vigilant for so-called "fake products," which can include everything from fake soy sauce and fake herbs to wine with high levels of industrial ethanol and vegetables overdosed with fertilizer.--Omid Ghoreishi

June 4, 2007. An estimated $22 billion a year is spent on dietary supplements in the United States. Neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor any other government agency oversees this industry, despite studies that have found that about 25% of its products are tainted with pesticides, salmonella, glass, bacteria, or heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. Most dietary supplements do not need to be registered with or approved by the FDA. Manufacturers set their own safety standards.*

Many of the supplements come from China, where oversight seems to consist of little more than government propaganda that all is well and officials are on top of the situation—not that China is unique in this respect. Ninety percent of vitamin C supplements consumed in the U.S. come from China. China is the major supplier to the world of vitamin A, B12, and E supplements. The Chinese are also major suppliers of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, analgesics, enzymes, and primary amino acids. China produces most of the world's penicillin, about half of its aspirin, and about one-third of its acetaminophen.* China also produces a massive quantity of herbs sold as supplements. How many would believe this claim I found on a website promoting these herbs:

Among the large variety of health products in the world, Chinese herbs and herbal products are being paid particular attention by people around the world since they are natural, effective and without any side effects!

Most of us are aware of the recent scandals involving tainted pet food and tooth paste originating in China.* How many are aware that a shipment of bacteria-contaminated vitamin A from China was stopped before it could be added to infant formula in Europe? How many know that at least 51 deaths in Panama have been attributed to medicine originating in China that was tainted with diethylene glycol?

Fortunately for the Chinese, they don't consume tainted supplements themselves. They can't afford them. The average annual income for rural Chinese is about $280. Urban Chinese bring in about $800 annually. (According to the U.S. Census, the 2002 median household income in the United States was $42,409.) The Chinese do, however, have to concern themselves with tainted food, since there is very little oversight of the food industry.

The FDA does have jurisdiction over food imported from China, however. According to China Economic Review (May 21, 2007):

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rejected some 257 Chinese food shipments last month, with at least 137 labeled "filthy" after testing positive for salmonella or for containing banned ingredients. The FDA seized more than 1,000 shipments of tainted cosmetics, food supplements, and counterfeit medicine from China last month.

The Chinese government realizes the economic disaster that could ensue should the rest of the world stop buying its tainted goods. The country's former top drug regulator was recently sentenced to death for taking bribes from pharmaceutical manufactures to approve substandard medicines, including an antibiotic that has been implicated in least 10 deaths.* The Chinese government has also announced its first recall system for unsafe products. In other words, until caught sending tainted products around the world, China didn't even think of regulating products for safety and recalling dangerous ones. According to China Daily, there were some regulations on product inspection that were issued in 2002 that mention the need for a food recall system, but until now the issue has never been systematically addressed. The Chinese government says it will send 90 administration inspectors to 15 provinces with two weeks. Two weeks should be plenty of time by Chinese standards to develop industry guidelines and rules, create a training program and instruct inspectors on how to do thorough safety inspections. For some reason, I am skeptical that the Chinese government is the one we want overseeing the safety of these billions of pills, supplements, herbs, and other items humans or other animals might ingest that are produced in their factories—not that the Chinese actually plan to inspect its supplement manufacturers any more than we do in the U.S.

As support for my skepticism I cite the fact that China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ)—the country's top quality watchdog—issued a statement saying: "Our research shows that toothpaste containing up to 15.6 percent diethylene glycol, the chemical that the US side is concerned about, is safe, even after prolonged use."* China's Foreign Ministry also rejected the FDA claim that melamine in pet food caused any animal deaths, saying that there was no evidence to support the FDA's claim.*

Until now, the overwhelming evidence supported the idea that supplements are mostly a waste of money. Study after study has failed to find any general health benefit from taking them. (Of course, individuals with specific deficiencies benefit from supplements.) The attitude of most people seems to be, what's the harm; even if they don't do any good, it can't hurt to take a daily supplement of vitamins and minerals. The people least likely to be helped by any amount of accurate information about supplements are those who use supplements as a substitute for scientific medicine because they're convinced that, as Kevin Trudeau puts it, "they" don't want you to know that real medicine is designed to make you sick or kill you, while supplement sellers and promoters (like ex-felon Trudeau) are the honest ones who really care about your health. It will be interesting to see what kind of rationalizations people come up with to justify continuing their daily regimen of supplements and natural herbs. Will people look at labels to see if their supplements, aspirin, or acetaminophen originated in China? Will U.S. law require such products to identify the source of origin of their ingredients? Will anybody take time from watching American Idol or following the scent of Paris Hilton to care about such mundane matters? Will any amount of information slow down the sales of Kevin Trudeau's latest blockbuster: The Weight Loss Cure "They" Don't Want You to Know About? Will it matter that the sales pitch is meaningless? "This is an ALL-NATURAL substance that is CLINICALLY proven." Does it matter that death and arsenic are natural or that the weasel words "clinically proven" don't have any content?


  • "Despite suspect safety, dietary supplements receive little oversight," June 3, 2007 by Tony Pugh - McClatchy Newspapers - TimesArgus.com
  • "China-made drugs under scrutiny," by Tim Johnson - McClatchy Beijing Bureau - June 1, 2007 - Sacramento Bee
  • Pet food and toothpaste: Hey China, give us a break! - Posted Jun 3rd 2007 by Gary E. Sattler
  • China's Former Top Drug Regulator Sentenced to Be Executed - May 29, 2007 - MSNBC
  • Podcast (mp3): Skeptic's Guide to the Universe - #96 - Interview with Gareth Hayes, an Australian living in China who gives a report on pseudoscience in China.
  • natural - The Skeptic's Dictionary

further reading

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* AmeriCares *

The Skeptic's Shop

About harm

It is difficult to assess the harm done to society and the world at large by the spread and encouragement of anti-scientific, irrational, and magical thinking. It is also difficult to measure the extent of harm done to individuals and their families who give up thinking for themselves to follow some guru astrologer, psychic, or cult leader.

It is impossible to calculate the losses to those bilked because they are ignorant of basic logical and psychological principles.

For those cancer patients who are thinking of trying an untested alternative therapy, please read Dr. Stephen Barrett's A Special Message for Cancer Patients Seeking "Alternative" Treatments.

Read this book and you will wonder no more about the harm done by false beliefs


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