Dietary Supplements Increasingly Harmful to Kids, New Study Says

New research adds dietary supplements commonly found in the home as a potential health risk to children.

A new study finds that U.S. Poison Control Centers received a call every 24 minutes, on average, linked to adverse reactions to dietary supplements. That’s a total of 274,998 cases reported from 2000 through 2012. The rate of calls tied to exposure to supplements surged by nearly 50 percent from 2005 to 2012.

Most notably, 70 percent of the calls involved children younger than 6 years old. Most exposures occurred when children swallowed supplements they found at home.

The latest study serves as a reminder that supplement products do not need to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they’re sold. What’s more, the facilities in which they are made are not overseen as well as those of pharmaceutical companies. There are more than 90,000 dietary supplements on the market in the U.S., and some of them have potentially harmful ingredients, according to a study last year by Consumer Reports that included physicians and researchers.

The latest study published in the Journal of Medical Toxicology points out that an estimated 52 percent of adults in the U.S. reported having used a dietary supplement within the past 30 days. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that dietary supplements are involved in some 23,000 visits to emergency departments every year in the U.S. Most of those visits involved either young adults, ages 20 to 34, or unsupervised children.

The researchers in the newest study singled out “yohimbe” tree bark extract as the substance in supplements that accounted for the majority of medical complications. The botanical, or herbal ingredient, can cause heartbeat rhythm changes and even kidney failure in children. Nearly 30 percent of yohimbe exposures resulted in moderate or major side effects.

“Although the majority of these exposures did not require treatment at a health care facility or result in serious medical outcomes, exposures to yohimbe and energy products were associated with considerable toxicity,” researcher said.

Energy products, including energy drinks containing caffeine and other substances, were also cited by researchers as being unintentionally consumed by young children, in many cases causing heart and breathing problems, seizures and other clinical problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says energy drinks usually contain additives not tested on children and advises against children and teens drinking energy drinks of any kind.

“We know from what we see in the Emergency Room that people, especially teens and young adults, generally consume two or three of these (energy or other caffeinated) drinks in a short period of time,” said Jonathan Fialkow, M.D., medical director of the Chest Pain Center, Cardiac Rehabilitation and Stress Lab at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute.

The study’s findings underscore the need for the FDA to increase scrutiny over yohimbe products and other supplements that pose health risks to both children and adults.

“Although the majority of these exposure calls did not result in serious medical outcomes, exposures to yohimbe and energy products can be dangerous, suggesting the need for child-resistant packaging, caregiver education and FDA regulation of these substances,” Henry Spiller, a co-author of the study and director of the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children’s, told CBS News.

In an article published last year in the American Journal of Cardiovascular Drugs, Dr. Fialkow cautioned against the use of dietary supplements as a substitute for prescribed medication. The focus of the article was the growing popularity of Omega-3 dietary supplements containing fish oils that are heavily promoted for heart health or for their anti-inflammatory qualities that can help people manage arthritis and joint pain. To be clear, there are no clinical data supporting these claims, Dr. Fialkow notes.

“There are issues and concerns regarding the content, quality and purity of omega-3 fatty acid dietary supplements,” says Dr. Fialkow. “It is important to recognize that dietary supplements do not always contain what is specified on their label and may differ in EPA and DHA (primary fatty acids) content from batch to batch.”

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