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Food & Health : Agri. & Environ. Last Updated: Apr 20, 2011 - 9:38:09 AM

Study Finds High Arsenic Levels in Kelp Supplements
By Molly Hurford
Apr 8, 2007 - 12:14:52 AM

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A study led by a UC Davis public health expert Marc Schenker reveals that an overuse of herbal kelp supplements may inadvertently cause arsenic poisoning and pose a threat to consumers.   Schenker, aided by two researchers, evaluated a variety of over the counter supplements and, of the 9 evaluated, 8 had higher than acceptable arsenic levels.


Prompted by a 54-year-old woman's two-year struggle with hair loss, fatigue, and memory loss at the UC Davis Occupational Medicine Clinic, the study was conducted and published in the April's issue of Environmental Health Perspectives (


Originally ascribed to menopause, the woman's symptoms of minor memory loss and fatigue were overlooked by her primary care physician, and she began to experiment with over-the-counter supplements, steadily taking a kelp supplement.


After several months, the woman's symptoms actually began to worsen, and she developed rashes and nausea to a degree where she could no longer work.   She then increased her dosage of kelp supplement from 2 to 4 pills a day.


Tests eventually revealed arsenic in the patientís blood as well as urine, and she discontinued the kelp supplements at her physician's suggestion. Merely weeks later, her blood and urine tests were arsenic-free, and she was referred to UC Davis for follow-up care.


Schenker, a professor of Public Health Sciences, is appalled that supplements prescribed to enhance the quality of life for people can have such unsavory effects.   He adds that, "Concentrations of materials contained in herbal supplements, including both the expected benefits and potential side effects, should be studied, standardized, monitored and accurately labeled."


With help from the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory, using 9 different brands of kelp supplements, researchers found detectable levels of arsenic in 8 of them, and in 7, a level exceeding the tolerance levels for food products set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.


"The FDA has limited control over dietary supplements," says Schenker, "it has to rely on adverse reports to determine product safety."


None of the kelp supplements indicated any level of arsenic, and Schenker points out that without any warning, overuse of the supplement could lead to overdose of arsenic.


Arsenic, a natural occurring metal found in high concentration in algae and seafood products, is typically only found in non-toxic levels.  However, unregulated dietary supplements are beginning to raise concerns.


Unfortunately, kelp supplements are not the only herbal remedies that may put consumers at risk.   Many published studies have found homeopathic remedies said to relieve conditions ranging from arthritis to asthma as containing toxic levels of arsenic.   Schenker's study is actually on the low end of the spectrum for levels of toxins found in remedies.


Schenker cautions consumers that the "chronic exposure to contaminated herbal supplements, even those with moderately elevated concentrations of arsenic, can still be toxic."   He gravely adds that consumers will not always find labels on the supplements, and could easily accidentally consume dangerous amounts of toxic substances.

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