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Date:   2/8/2007 10:46:07 PM ( 14 years ago ago)
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Health pills may be poison
Woman says arsenic in supplement made her sick; store backs product as safe

By Ryan Sabalow (Contact)
Torsdag, Februar 8, 2007

“It is unfortunate that a therapy which is advertised as contributing to ‘vital living and well-being’ would have potently unsafe levels of arsenic."
study by researchers at University of California at Davis

Government case study on arsenic in kelp

PALO CEDRO — A Shasta County woman says she almost died from arsenic poisoning after taking an herbal supplement from a health food store.

Mary Kirby, 56, of Palo Cedro said Icelandic kelp tablets like those that made her sick also may have killed her mother-in-law.

And a group of University of California at Davis researchers found the supplements Kirby took to thicken her hair contained potentially dangerous levels of arsenic, according to a study published last month.

But Joe Martino, owner of Orchard Nutrition Center in Redding where Kirby bought the tablets, says the supplements he sells are quite safe.

He said Kirby likely got sick because she was taking a much larger dose than the supplement manufacturer, Nature’s Life, recommends.

Kirby, a retired therapist for Shasta County Mental Health, said she took as many as four kelp tablets a day for at least a year.

The manufacturer recommends one tablet a day.

“Instructions are given for a reason,” Martino said on Wednesday. “When someone takes more than they’re instructed ... they’re their own worst enemy.”

Saying Kirby’s case spurred their interest, the researchers found arsenic in eight of the nine supplement samples they tested, three of which were from Kirby’s own supply.

The study found levels of arsenic in Kirby’s tablets varied from 1.59 parts per million to as high as 34.8. One sample separate from Kirby’s supply had levels of arsenic at 65.5 parts per million.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates that food can’t be sold containing arsenic levels higher than 2 parts per million, according to the study.

The researchers say their results point to a larger trend in the self-regulating dietary supplement industry, which in 2001 brought in $178 billion. “Not one of these products had labels indicating the possibility of arsenic and other heavy metals in the kelp,” the study says. “It is unfortunate that a therapy which is advertised as contributing to ‘vital living and well-being’ would have potently unsafe levels of arsenic.”

The results of the UC Davis study were published in January in “Environmental Health Perspectives,” a publication issued by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

A spokesman for Nutraceutical International Corp., the Park City, Utah-based parent company that manufactures Nature’s Life, did not return a phone message left Wednesday.

An FDA spokesman said supplement manufacturers do not need to register their products or get the agency’s approval before producing or selling dietary supplements.

A dietary supplement manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that its product is safe before it is marketed and is investigated only if an “adverse event” is reported, FDA spokesman Michael Herndon said in an e-mail.

Herndon did not respond to an e-mail sent after work hours asking if the FDA was going to investigate Kirby’s case.

Kirby says she first started taking the Icelandic kelp in 2002 at the behest of her mother-in-law, Ruth Kirby, who lived in the San Diego area.

Mary Kirby said that she wasn’t worried about taking too many of the tablets, which retail locally for around $16 per 1,000-tablet bottle, because they were labeled “all natural.”

She said she actually increased her dosage to four pills as she got progressively sicker, thinking the tablets would help her get better.

Mary Kirby says that at the time she didn’t realize her mother-in-law was exhibiting the same signs of arsenic poisoning that she had — headaches, nausea, absent-mindedness, rashes and aching muscles.

Then in September of 2003, 75-year-old Ruth Kirby died at a women’s retreat.

In December of 2003, Mary Kirby’s doctors tested her for arsenic and found she had poisonous levels of the heavy metal in her body.

But Kirby said they’ll never have proof that the poison played a role in her mother-in-law’s death because no autopsy was conducted and she was cremated.

Martino, the health food store’s owner, said he doubts Kirby and the researchers’ findings.

He said it’s likely the researchers would have found the same levels of arsenic had they tested asparagus.

Arsenic, he said, is found naturally in all vegetables and is actually good for your body in small doses. He described kelp as “sea spinach.”

“I know this lady is going off (looking) for a lawsuit,” Martino said. “Why else would she do it? She smells millions.”

Kirby said she is not looking for money.

She said she no longer takes herbal supplements and hopes her story will cause other people to be skeptical about using them.

“I want it off the market or at least a warning to go on the label,” Kirby said.

Reporter Ryan Sabalow can be reached at 225-8344 or at


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