When ‘inactive ingredients’ aren’t so inactive

24 October, 2013

It was with some dismay this week that I  read a report by the group Action on Additives that revealed that most children’s medicines on sale in the UK still contain additives known to provoke adverse effects.

I was writing about this kind of thing 12 years ago and naively assumed that  things might have improved. Apparently not.

For those who don’t know, when you use any kind of drug, you’re getting more than just the active ingredients. You are also getting what industry calls excipients – ‘inactive’ ingredients which are added to make them look and taste appealing, to maintain their shelf life, and/or to help the active ingredients blend together properly, among other things.

Some 773 chemical agents are used as excipients in drug products, but only a few have been fully safety tested. Almost none have been studied for any potential cocktail effect and drug formulations are rarely studied to understand the impact of both the active and inactive ingredients combined.

Generally less than 10% of a medicine is the active ingredient; the rest is excipients. While most excipients are listed on the product label some, such as flavourings and fragrances, can fall under the heading of ‘trade secrets’, meaning you’ll never know they are there.

The myth of the inactive ingredient is one of modern medicine’s more egregious lies. Excipients are not just used for cosmetic purposes. They are also used to deliver drugs more effectively; in other words they are not only active but vital components of pharmaceuticals. In addition, since they are able to provoke a multitude of adverse reactions, they are clearly not inert.

The mercury and aluminium in children’s vaccines were ‘inerts’. And what have been termed the ‘Southampton Seven’ – ingredients known to provoke hyperactivity and ADHD symptoms are also considered ‘inert’. Action on Additives found these in 52 medicines currently on sale in the UK; and they will also be in children’s medicines in other countries too.

Other examples of inactive ingredients that can cause reactions include: sulphites, benzoates, aspartame, saccharin, oleic acid, benzyl alcohol, lactose, soya lecithin, propylene glycol, sorbitan trioleate and synthetic colours, dyes and flavourings.

That substances known to cause adverse reactions in children are still knowingly used in children’s medications is a shameful revelation. But remember it’s not just children who are at risk and it’s not just medicines that contain excipients.

All processed food has inactive ingredients (we call them additives) which are capable of causing adverse health reactions. And all pesticide formulas also contain these ‘inerts’.  And it is through research into pesticides that we really begin to see how damaging so-called inactive ingredients can really be.

Let’s take the example of glyphosate – the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup which is used industrially on GM plants and domestically in many people’s gardens.

Most glyphosate-based herbicides are formulated with one or more surfactants. The surfactant in a herbicide works in the same way as the surfactant in your shampoo – it makes the active ingredients work harder spreading the solution across the leaf and helping it penetrate more deeply thus enhancing the plant’s uptake of this poison. It is an active constituent.

What is more, data shows that this glyphosate/surfactant combination is harmful.  Human placental cells, for example, are very sensitive to Roundup at concentrations lower than those currently used in agricultural applications.

In a study of Ontario farming populations, exposure to glyphosate nearly doubled the risk of late miscarriages. In addition, the ethoxylated surfactant in the Roundup formulation doubled the toxic effect of the glyphosate. The excipient, along with the glyphosate, ends up in our food and our animal feed. Which means it ends up in us too.

But here’s the real kicker. In addition to producing ever more powerful drugs, the chemical industry (of which the pharmaceutical industry is a part) is now involved in producing ever more powerful excipients with highly specific functions (and therefore probably more likelihood of causing adverse reactions).

You have to wonder how much longer such substances can remain hidden under the cloak of ‘inactive ingredients’.

Pat Thomas, Editor