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 June 13, 2003
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Shop Wisely for Calcium Supplements
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By Sue MacDonald

Before you pop another calcium tablet into your mouth, be aware of what else might be in it.

Without intending to scare consumers, Florida researchers are urging calcium-takers to choose calcium supplements that do not contain lead, a toxic metal.

Last fall, doctors at the University of Florida found that 8 of 21 calcium supplements -- most of them readily available in drug and department stores -- had detectable levels of lead, a metal known to cause learning, behavior and growth problems in children, and anemia, high blood pressure, and brain and kidney damage in adults.

Calcium carbonate products cited

The supplements included brand name and generic supplements that include calcium carbonate as the source of calcium. No products with calcium citrate were studied. Two products labeled as "essentially lead-free" did not contain any lead.

Dr. Edward A Ross, main author of the study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, doesn't want consumers to quit taking calcium, an important supplement for bone health. He just wants them to choose a calcium supplement that's lead-free -- and to be aware that lead exists in calcium supplements.

"Less is better"

Even though the amounts of detectable lead in his study were small, "we also believe that the less lead anyone is exposed to, the better," he explained. "And we hope the industry will respond by labeling their products and finding better raw materials for their supplements."

For several decades, health experts and legislators have worked to reduce exposure to lead by removing it from paint, gasoline, ceramic glazes and food/beverage containers. Drug companies also have made efforts to reduce lead content in calcium supplements � a phenomenon first identified in a 1993 study.

A JAMA editorial -- written by a doctor who is a consultant to drug companies on calcium supplements -- said consumers should be more worried about getting enough calcium to build strong bones than about too much lead in their supplements. Lead in calcium supplements, the editorial said, represents a "small fraction of the total daily lead intake."

Advice to consumers from Dr. Ross:

  • If you take calcium supplements, choose brands and products with little or no lead. Some drug manufacturers take the extra step to remove lead from calcium supplements, and many of them provide "lead-free" information on their labels.
  • Be especially wary if you have failing kidneys, a problem for which doctors often prescribe extra calcium. At the levels prescribed, some kidney patients could be taking as many as 20 micrograms of lead a day -- far more than the accepted daily limit of 6 micrograms.
  • Parents of children who take supplements should choose lead-free products and talk to their pediatrician if they have questions about risks or exposure.
  • Consumers should pressure drug manufacturers to adopt stricter standards to remove as much lead as possible from calcium supplements. Many manufacturers already mine calcium from low-lead calcium fields/sources or process it chemically to remove lead.

Products studied

Among the products found to contain lead by Florida researchers were Spring Valley natural oyster shell calcium with Vitamin D (500 mg), Nature Made oyster shell calcium with vitamin D (500 mg), Oscal 500, Eckerd's Hi-Calcium from oyster shell and its 600 mg calcium supplement, Caltrate 600, Liqui-Cal Calcium 600 softgels and R& D Laboratories' Calci-Mix.

All had fewer than 2 micrograms of lead per 800 mg dose, but all contained more than 6 micrograms of lead per 6000 mg dose (the recommended daily calcium dose for an adult is 1,000-1,200 mg).

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