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New Study Links Dietary Supplement Use to More Than 20,000 ER Visits a Year

Oct 16, 2015

A newly published study led by researchers from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that injuries related to the use of dietary supplements lead to more than 20,000 emergency room visits a year.

Many of the ER visits involve young adults who experience cardiovascular problems after taking supplements promoted for weight loss and energy enhancement. The study, led by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is the first to document the extent of severe injuries and hospitalizations linked to dietary supplements, according to the New York Times' Well blog. The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Critics of the supplement industry say the findings provide further evidence that dietary supplements put consumers at risk. But industry representatives say the data show that only that a tiny fraction of the millions of supplement users sustain major injuries. The $32 billion a year supplement industry has attracted increasing scrutiny recently and a number of groups have called for stricter regulation of these products.

For their study, the researchers tracked emergency room visits at hospitals around the country over a 10-year period and analyzed those in which a dietary supplement was given as the reason for the visit. Among the problems that brought supplement users to the ER were allergic reactions, heart problems, nausea and vomiting, the Times reports. The injuries were attributed to variety of supplement types: herbal pills, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. The researchers say approximately 10 percent of the cases-about 2,150 yearly-were serious enough to require hospitalization.

Dr. Andrew Geller, the lead author, and a medical officer at the CDC, said the researchers found that emergency room visits caused by supplements were predominantly among people 20 to 34 years old. They account for more than a quarter of supplement-related emergency room visits. Half of these cases were caused by a supplement marketed for weight loss or energy enhancement, popular products for those involved in sports and fitness activities. Common symptoms include chest pain, heart palpitations, and irregular heart rhythms, according to the Times. It was unclear if there were any deaths because the study tracked hospital visits, not deaths.

Weight loss and energy enhancement products like Hydroxycut, Xenadrine, Raspberry Ketones and Black Jack Energy have been implicated in serious health problems, including a 2013 hepatitis outbreak that sickened nearly a hundred people, caused at least one death and three liver transplants, the Times reports.

Experts warn that these supplements can be hazardous because they can contain chemical ingredients that have not been proven safe for human consumption or can contain undeclared drug ingredients, which can cause overdoses or can interact with medications the individual is already taking. And unlike FDA-approved prescription drugs, supplements do not carry warnings about potential adverse effects, according to the Times.

Under a widely criticized 1994 federal law, dietary supplements do not need FDA approval before they are sold to consumers. Supplements are considered safe until proved otherwise and they are not required to list potential side effects on their labels. Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, who studies supplements but was not involved in the research for the New England Journal of Medicine article said the study results show that "the system has failed. It's failing to protect consumers from very serious harms."

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