Homeopathy: Available At Your Local Wal-Mart

***This article is cross-posted from http://randi.org This is my first post for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s online newsletter, “The Swift”. Enjoy!***

***I have made a couple corrections to this article thanks to a commenter on Swift***

At TAM 8, one of the panelists, Dr. Ginger Campbell, mentioned that the mother of one of her patients had picked up a homeopathic remedy from Wal-Mart because the labeling was not obvious. Her child’s ear ache, not surprisingly, continued to worsen. because the mother was unable to tell that what she had gotten wasn’t real medicine.

After doing some investigating, I found that the Wal-Mart online store sells two homeopathic “remedies”. The first is Ring Relief. Its inactive ingredient, Benzalkonium Chloride, is, according to Drugs.Com is an antiseptic similar to that used at an ear piercing kiosk for after an ear piercing has been done. It is generally used for treating minor cuts, scrapes and burns.

The Mayo Clinic states none of the possible causes of tinnitus are treatable with an antiseptic.. While there ARE a wide range of causes for the issue, not one is related to viral or bacterial infestation in the ear canal or inner ear. This so called remedy is useless for what it claims to do.

The ACTIVE ingredients are: silicea (flint, 10^-8), arnica (an herb, 10^-6), thiosinamium (mustard, 10^-6), hepar sulph calc (calcium sulfide, 10^-6), hypericum (an herb, 10^-6), merc solub (mercury, 10^-8, and salicylicum ac (salicylic acid, 10^-6). The Hypericum (aka St. John’s Wort) is generally used for mild to moderate depressionArnica has traditionally been used to treat bruises, scrapes, acne, boils, rashes and other wounds. However there is no evidence to support it as a useful anti-inflammatory or analgesic.

The other, more insidious “remedy” offered by Wal-Mart is Oscilliococcinum. The claim on the box reads “Reduces Severity And Duration Of Flu Symptoms”. According to one reviewer, their kids really enjoy taking this “remedy” because it’s “fun” to take. Another reviewer stated that these are “sugar-tasting, poprock-like things”. For anyone not familiar, many homeopathic remedies are tiny sugar pills that have had a few drops of the diluted substance of choice added to them. This one is the same. So each dose consists of several tiny sugar pills that dissolve on the tongue.

The active ingredient in Oscilliococcinum is Anas Barbariae Hepatis Et Cordis. For those of us not fluent in Latin, that would be the extract of the liver and heart of the wild duck. The original species used, according to Homeowatch.org was Canard de Barbarie. Today we know these animals as Muscovy Ducks.
There is no evidence to suggest that the heart and liver of this particular species of duck has any anti viral properties. Homeopathy’s guiding principle is that “like cures like”. Even if there were scientific evidence to back up this disproved theory, the flu is based neither in the heart or the liver. Nor is the cause of the flu based in either organ.

What is most disturbing is that one of the reviewers on the Wal-Mart web site says clearly that it is safe for children. Tiny duck and sugar tic tacks with no more duck than an a molecule or two IS, of course, safe. However, that’s the problem. There is 1) not enough active ingredient in this product to create ANY sort of effect on the illness it claims to alleviate and 2) The active ingredient has absolutely nothing to do with the ailment  it is supposed to treat.

On further investigation, I discovered the local Wal-Mart had two additional homeopathic “remedies” available. The first is Hyland’s Cough Syrup. It was in there right next to the other children’s cough syrups in the pharmacy. Hyland’s, according to it’s web site, offers 23 children’s products ALONE. Fortunately the local Wal-Mart only carries this one. The listed active ingredients are: Ipecacuanha (the basis for Ipecac Syrup – a substance to induce vomiting), Aconitum Napellus (Otherwise known as Aconite or Monk’s Hood – a poison that affect the heart and lungs), Spongia Tosta (roasted sea sponge) and Antimonium Tartaricum (aka Tartar Emetic-used to induce vomiting). All of these substances have been diluted to 10 to the  -6th power or to point that there are six parts substance to six MILLION parts distilled water for each substance. The remaining substances don’t have enough potency to have any effect. The other “remedy I found was a homeopathic herbal extract of Black Elderberry called Sambucol. This is a dilution of a berry extract that, while it may have some promise, still needs more study.

Do corporations such as Wal-Mart have a responsibility to investigate the items that they sell? Is this just a matter of Buyer Beware? If corporations are not responsible, where does the responsibility lie?

If it lies solely with the consumer, we as skeptics need to be out there educating not only individuals, but boardrooms as well. If the people who make the purchasing decisions are educated, then these products will hopefully eventually be removed from store shelves.


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