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U.S. kids overdosing on dietary supplements, FDA can't do anything

Staff Writer |
A curious toddler opens a bottle of melatonin found on the kitchen counter, and accidentally overdoses on a supplement typically used by adults to help with sleep.

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In that case, the doctor who treated the child only had to deal with a very tired 3-year-old, but it might have been a far more serious scenario if a different dietary supplement, such as the energy product ephedra or the male enhancement herb yohimbe, had been swallowed.

"We see it all the time," said Dr. Barbara Pena, research director of the emergency medicine department at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami.

Indeed, a new report from researchers bears out Pena's observations: From 2005 through 2012, the annual rate of accidental exposures to dietary supplements rose in the United States by nearly 50 percent, and 70 percent of those exposures involved young children.

"The biggest increase [in accidental overdoses] was in children under 6. It got our attention," said study author Henry Spiller, director of the Central Ohio Poison Center of Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus.

Ninety-seven percent of the time, the children swallowed the supplements while at home, the study found.

It is a particularly difficult problem to try to solve: Dietary supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as drugs, so they're not subject to the same scrutiny and oversight.

The FDA can only take action if the supplements are shown to cause harm.

During the 13 years of the study, Spiller's team also found an increase from 2000 to 2002, when the rates of calls to U.S. poison control centers involving supplements rose 46 percent each year.

From 2002 to 2005, the researchers found the rates of calls declined.

Spiller suspects that is because the FDA banned ephedra in 2004, after supplements containing it had been linked with adverse heart events and deaths.

Overall, only about 4.5 percent of the cases in the study had serious medical outcomes. During the 13-year period tracked, 34 deaths were attributed to supplement exposure, Spiller said.

The supplements most often associated with the greatest toxicity were ephedra (also known as ma huang) products, yohimbe (found in male enhancement and other products) and energy supplements.

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