AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Tens of thousands of Americans are rushed to emergency rooms every year after taking dietary supplements. That's according to the first study to calculate the risks posed by these products nationally. NPR's health correspondent Rob Stein has the details.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Dietary supplements are wildly popular in the United States, and Andrew Geller of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people use them for all sorts of health reasons.
ANDREW GELLER: Dietary supplements include a wide range of products from folate to fish oil, magnesia to energy supplement pills.
STEIN: But there's a big difference between these products and other things people take for their health.
GELLER: In contrast to pharmaceutical drugs which have to have demonstrated benefits, dietary supplements do not have to have specific benefits demonstrated before they can be sold.
STEIN: In other words, they don't have to prove they work, and they don't have to prove something else - whether they're safe. So Geller and his colleagues decided try to find out. They analyzed data from 63 emergency rooms from 2004 to 2013. They report what they found in this week's New England Journal of Medicine.
GELLER: We calculate that every year, dietary supplements cause more than 23,000 emergency room visits and more than 2,000 hospitalizations.
STEIN: Often it's people in their 20s and 30s who taking supplements to lose weight or get extra energy. They end up in the ER with heart problems like dangerously irregular heartbeats or chest pain. Geller says it's hard to know which products are causing problems or why.
GELLER: We don't have information about what's contained in these products. And oftentimes, multiple active ingredients are combined into a single product. And similarly named products can have very different active ingredients. So for all those reasons, it can be hard for consumers, clinicians and public health agencies to determine which, if any, of the specific active ingredients caused the observed effects.
STEIN: Geller says part of the problem is children getting into products purchased by an adult in their house. And some of the cases involve something that can happen with regular medications - older people choking on the pills. Critics of the dietary supplement industry say the new research is long overdue.
PIETER COHEN: This is the most important study that's been published on supplements to the last 20 years. It's a tremendously important study.
STEIN: Pieter Cohen studies supplements at Harvard Medical School.
COHEN: What this study does is find entirely flawed the underlying premise that supplements are safe.
STEIN: Cohen says the study shows that supplements need to be tracked much more closely so the FDA can identify and remove dangerous products from the market sooner. But the companies that make supplements disagree. They say the new research actually shows how safe the products are. Duffy MacKay is with the Council for Responsible Nutrition which represents the dietary supplements industry.
DUFFY MACKAY: If you put it in context that over 150 million Americans take dietary supplements each year, we have far less than one-tenth of 1 percent of supplement users will visit the ER.
STEIN: MacKay argues the study overestimates the dangers by including products that aren't even supplements. And, MacKay says, any problems could be minimized by doing things like keeping supplements away from children and educating people about how to use them more carefully. Rob Stein, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.