Hazardous homeopathy: ‘ingredients’ that ought to make you think twice

Would you take a medicine made with arsenic? Or deadly nightshade? Lead? Poison ivy?

You’d ask some serious questions first, at least, wouldn’t you? Is it definitely safe? Or, more accurately, are the odds better than even that it will make me better without causing horrible side-effects? Or, you know, killing me?

There ARE medicines that are legitimately made from highly toxic compounds. For example, the poison beloved of crime writers such as Agatha Christie, arsenic trioxide, is used to treat acute promyelocytic leukemia in patients who haven’t responded to other treatments. Unsurprisingly, it’s not without risks. Side-effects are unpleasant and common, affecting about a third of patients who take it. On the other hand, acute promyelocytic leukemia is fatal if untreated. A good doctor would talk this through with a patient, explain both sides, and leave the final choice in his or her properly-informed hands. As always in medicine, it’s a question of balancing risks and benefits.

Would you trust something with no proven benefit and a lot of potential risk? There are, it turns out, a swathe of entirely unregulated mixtures currently being sold in shops and online which clearly feature the substances I listed at the beginning. And more. Because they are all, supposedly, the starting materials in certain homeopathic remedies.

Homeopaths like to use unfamiliar, usually Latin-based, names which somewhat disguise the true nature of their ingredients. Here’s a short, but by no means comprehensive, list. (You might find remedies labelled differently but these are, as far as I can tell, the most common names given to these substances.)

If you haven’t heard of some of these, I do urge you to follow the links above, which will largely take you pages detailing their toxicology. Spoiler: the words “poison”, “deadly” and “fatal” feature heavily. These are nasty substances.

There are some big ironies here, and I’m not referring to the metal. For example, a common cry of anti-vaccinationists is that vaccines contain animal tissues – anything and everything from monkey DNA to dog livers. But many also seem to be keen to recommend homeopaths and courses of homeoprophylaxis – so-called “homeopathic vaccines” – which use bodily fluids such as pus and blood as starting materials.

Now, at this point I’m sure some of you are thinking, hang on a minute: aren’t you always telling us that “the dose makes the poison“? And aren’t homeopathic remedies diluted so much that none of the original substance remains, so they’re just placebos?

Yes, I am, and yes, they are.

Does anyone test homeopathic remedies to make sure there’s nothing in them….?

In THEORY. But here’s the problem: who’s testing these mixtures to make sure that the dilutions are done properly? And how exactly are they doing that (if they are)?

One technique that chemists use to identify tiny quantities of substance is gas chromatography (GC). This is essentially a high-tech version of that experiment you did at school, where you put some dots of different coloured ink on a piece of filter paper and watched them spread up the paper when you put it in some water.

GC analysis is brilliant at identifying tiny quantities of stuff. 10 parts per million is no problem for most detectors, and the most sensitive equipment can detect substances in the parts per billion range. Homeopathy dilutions are many orders of magnitude higher than this (30c, for example, means a dilution factor of 1060), but this doesn’t matter – once you get past 12c (a factor of 1024) you pass the Avogadro limit.

This is because Avogadro’s number, which describes the number of molecules in what chemists call a “mole” of a substance, is 6×1023. For example, if you had 18 ml of water in a glass, you’d have 6×1023 molecules of H2O. So you can see, if you’ve diluted a small sample by a factor of 1024 – more than the total number of molecules of water you had in the first place – the chances are very good that all you have is water. There will be none of the original substance left. (This, by the way, is of no concern to most homeopaths, who believe that larger dilutions magically produce a stronger healing effect.)

What if the sample ISN’T pure water after it’s been diluted?

If you carried out GC analysis of such a sample, you should find just pure water. Indeed, if you DIDN’T find pure water, it should be cause for concern. Potassium cyanide, for example, is toxic at very low levels. The lethal dose is is only 0.2-0.3 grams, and you’d suffer unpleasant symptoms long before you were exposed to that much.

So what if the dilutions somehow go wrong? What if some sample gets stuck in the bottle? Or on the pipette? Or a few dilution steps get skipped for some reason?

Are these largely unregulated companies rigorously quality-checking their remedies?

Well, maybe. It’s possible some producers are testing their raw materials for purity (ah yes, another question: they CLAIM they’re starting with, say, arsenic, but can we be certain?), and perhaps testing the “stability” of their products after certain periods of time (i.e. checking for bacterial growth), but are they running tests on the final product and checking that, well, there’s nothing in it?

And actually, isn’t this a bit of a conflict? If the water somehow “remembers” the chemical that was added and acquires some sort of “vibrational energy”, shouldn’t that show up somehow in GC analysis or other tests? If your tests prove it’s pure water, indistinguishable from any other sample of pure water, then… (at this point homeopaths will fall back on arguments such as “you can’t test homeopathy” and “it doesn’t work like that”. The name for this is special pleading.)

A warning was issued in the U.S. after several children became ill.

Am I scaremongering? Not really. There’s at least one published case study describing patients who suffered from arsenic poisoning after using homeopathic preparations. In January this year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about elevated levels of belladonna (aka deadly nightshade) in some homeopathic teething products. Yes, teething products. For babies. This warning was issued following several reports of children becoming ill after using the products. The FDA said that its “laboratory analysis found inconsistent amounts of belladonna, a toxic substance, in certain homeopathic teething tablets, sometimes far exceeding the amount claimed on the label.”

Now, admittedly, I’m based in the U.K. and these particular teething remedies were never readily available here. But let’s just type “homeopathy” into the Boots.com (the British high-street pharmacy) website and see what pops up… ah yes. Aconite Pillules, 30c, £6.25 for 84.

What happens if you search for “homeopathy” on the Boots.com website?

Have you been paying attention lovely readers? Aconite is…. yes! Monkshood! One of the most poisonous plants in the garden. Large doses cause instant death. Smaller doses cause nausea and diarrhea, followed by a burning and tingling sensation in the mouth and abdomen, possibly muscle weakness, low blood pressure and irregular heartbeat.

I must stress at this point that there is no suggestion, absolutely none whatsoever, that any of the products for sale at Boots.com has ever caused such symptoms. I’m sure the manufacturers check their preparations extremely carefully to ensure that there’s absolutely NO aconite left and that they really are just very small, very expensive, sugar pills.

Well, fairly sure.

In summary, we seem to be in a situation where people who proclaim that rigorously-tested and quality-controlled pharmaceuticals are “toxic” also seem to be happy to use unregulated homeopathic remedies made with ACTUALLY toxic starting materials.

I wonder if the new “documentary” about homeopathy, Just One Drop, which is being screened in London on the 6th of April will clarify this awkward little issue? Somehow, I doubt it. Having watched the trailer, I think it’s quite clear which way this particular piece of film is going to lean.

One last thing. Some homeopathic mixtures include large quantities of alcohol. For example, the Bach Original Flower Remedies are diluted with brandy and contain approximately 27% alcohol (in the interests of fairness, they do also make alcohol-free versions of some of their products and, as I’ve recently learned, they may not be technically homeopathic). Alcohol is a proven carcinogen. Yes, I know, lots of adults drink moderate quantities of alcohol regularly and are perfectly healthy, and the dose from a flower remedy is minuscule, but still, toxins and hypocrisy and all that.

There are cheaper ways to buy brandy than Bach Flower Remedies.

Amusingly, the alcohol in these remedies is described an “inactive” ingredient. It’s more likely to be the only ACTIVE ingredient. And since Flower Remedies retail for about £7 for 20 ml (a mighty £350 a litre, and they’re not even pure brandy) may I suggest that if you’re looking for that particular “medicine” you might more wisely spend your money on a decent bottle of Rémy Martin?

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20 thoughts on “Hazardous homeopathy: ‘ingredients’ that ought to make you think twice

  1. Just a small correction: Bach Flower products are not classed as homeopathic by the MHRA (and even some homeopaths don’t call them homeopathic for a number of different reasons). They are simply food stuffs. For further details, see:

    Bach Flower Remedies: foods, not medicines


    Also, although some manufacturers use brandy as the initial solvent, I think they all use cheaper grape alcohol for subsequent dilutions – I don’t think they are the same thing.

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  4. One of the things that always struck me about homeopathy is the overly simple world view of its practitioners. Yes, if you take a soluble arsenic compound and keep diluting it, you will get an ever weaker solution of that compound, until there’s no molecule left any more. And yes, in the hypothetical case that some sort of ‘energy’ is somehow preserved, transferred and even amplified with each step, it is imaginable that this fictitious energy is somehow related to the original compound – even though nobody ever found even the tiniest smidgen of evidence for the existence of this ‘energy’. But OK, one substance results in one type of ‘energy’. Fine.

    But being dangerously out here on a limb already, we truly pass into the realm of utter silliness when considering nosodes, e.g. pus. This is not a single, well-defined substance, but rather an arbitrary mixture of anything from simple salts to proteins to DNA fragments, and dozens of types of complete cells and pathogens, in wildly varying amounts.
    Yet homeopaths simply view this as a single substance that can be diluted with impunity, invariably resulting in the desired ‘remedy’ or ‘homeoprophylaxis’. This is of course nothing short of madness. Even at the first dilution steps, the nature of the substance ‘pus’ changes dramatically: intact cells rupture due to osmotic changes and the alcohol used, proteins precipitate or denature, oxidation speeds up, and quite a few other biological and chemical processes take their toll. So even if this postulated (pustulated?) ‘energy’ were real, what ‘energy’ would end up in the final product? No-one can tell…
    And oh, what actually can end up in the final product, especially when the Korsakov method of dilution is used, are the pathogens that this ‘nosode’ was based on. By the Korsakov method, a small vial containing the dilution is repeatedly emptied and filled with water again, assuming that every time, about one percent of the previous dilution sticks to the glass in order to attain a 1:100 dilution per step. Microbes too, however, often have a tendency to stick to surfaces, which means that they may be not all safely washed away in the process, but literally stick around until the end. One wouldn’t dare thinking of the possible consequences when homeopaths would actually start messing about with really virulent pathogens such as anthrax of ebola… (and yes, anthrax nosodes are actually offered – we can only hope that there were never any anthrax bacteria involved).

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    • Accuracy and actually measuring things are not homeopaths’ strong points.

      Never, ever ask a homeopath how many times – or with what force – each dilution has to be ‘succussed…

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      • Yes well, that bit’s magic, obviously 🙄

        The more I learn about it, the more amazed I am that people aren’t poisoned on a regular basis. No wonder they came up with the idea that larger dilutions were “more effective”. Read: “less likely to kill you”!


      • I’ve been studying homeopathy (and other alternative stuff) for quite a few years now, and indeed I’ve never come across even one single “trial” by a homeopath, no matter how badly carried out, where the dilution factor was actually found to be of any importance at all. Let me repeat that in slightly different terms: no homeopath has ever found that a higher dilution actually had a stronger effect, as in that patients responded noticeably faster or better to a 60C preparation than to a 30C preparation. And this “Law of Infinitesimals” is supposed to be one of the most important principles of homeopathy…

        Which also makes me wonder why consumers who believe in homeopathy keep on buying homeopathic stuff such as oscillococcinum. According to homeopathic laws, you only have to buy one package, and after that you can simply dissolve one of the sugar pills in half a cup of water, shake vigorously several times, and hey presto: not only have you just increased the amount of the ‘remedy’ by a factor of one hundred, you even made it more potent! And you can just keep on doing this forever, so you never run out!

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  5. Great post. I’m now curious as to how homeopaths dispose of the remaining starting material once they’ve used some small fraction of it to create products that don’t contain any of it 😉

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