At some point or another in the past, you may have invested in a homeopathic remedy for what ails you or a loved one. I get it; it's not uncommon to dislike pharmaceutical companies when they charge you an arm and a leg for synthetic prescription drugs, each of which carries a long list of possible side effects.
Homeopathy is available without prescriptions, and thanks to its packaging and promotion it seems helpful for a variety of illnesses. Given the public's high interest in "organic," "natural" and "herbal" products, they aren't difficult to market. In the late 2000's products that fit into the "homeopathic" category brought in $2.9 billion in revenue, and while scientific consensus is that they are therapeutically ineffective, they have a certain element of placebo and psychosomatic benefit. It's almost certain the consumers get far less than they pay for, but it's their money and I don't want to harpoon .
It's not the products' supposed benefits that need a closer look, though--it's the harm that such improperly-prepared "remedies" can allegedly cause.
How Does Homeopathic Medicine Work?
Shortest possible answer: It (usually) doesn't.
Homeopathy is defined by Merriam-Webster as:
"A system for treating illnesses that uses very small amounts of substances that would in larger amounts produce symptoms of the illnesses in healthy people."
Rephrasing that, homeopathy is the practice of putting something nasty in a lot of water to dilute its dangers, then feeding the resultant combination to a patient. It's predicated on the notion that "like cures like," in which the best way to cure an illness is to feed the body traces of a toxic substance that mimics that disease's symptoms. The idea there is that the body will learn how to fight the disease on a larger scale from conquering it in its lesser form. From allergies to AIDS, there's no affliction that watered poison can't supposedly address.
The products' often-hazardous ingredients often require dilution to such an extent that only water functionally remains at the end. That's apparently not a problem, as this practice alleges that water molecules have "contact memory." That means they somehow retain the medicinal properties of the ingredients they drown out. The products, supposedly full of what I'm choosing to call "poison ghosts," are still put on shelves and purchased. They likely provide psychological benefits that are harder to gauge than their absent physical ones. And again--if it's generally harmless and at least makes people feel better, I have no business interfering.
The trouble is that practitioners don't always dilute the dangerous ingredients down to inert levels. When that happens, they could be selling dangerous toxins under the auspices of healing.
Case Example: Hyland's Teething Tablets
Last month, the FDA issued a warning to parents that Hyland's-brand homeopathic teething gels and tablets (to be 100% clear, those are products for use on babies) may not have been properly diluted by their manufacturer. Though at this time the investigation has not definitively identified the products as the source of the injuries they're investigating, the warning echoed one from 2010 about similar concerns involving the same goods. The ingredient under the agency's scrutiny at the time was belladonna, also known as "deadly nightshade."
Though it is unsafe for direct use, herbalists and homeopaths allege that diluted belladonna can be used as a sedative, a treatment for bronchial spasms such as those in asthma and whooping cough, and a cold/allergy remedy. It supposedly can also be used to treat Parkinson's disease, colic, motion sickness, and as a painkiller. As the herb is found in nature the dilution safely falls within the unregulated labeling categories of "natural" and "herbal," and is quite popular due to the range of its alleged uses.
When it is insufficiently mixed, however, belladonna poisoning can lead to symptoms like lethargy, seizures, vomiting, constipation, blurred vision, respiratory problems, drowsiness, muscle weakness, and urinary difficulty. Historically, the concentrated extract of the herb was used as a potent poison. When prepared for homeopathic remedies, it is meant to be diluted to tiny trace amounts or eliminated from the final mixture entirely (keeping in mind that through "contact memory" the water would supposedly retain the herb's useful elements).
In 2010 the official FDA report about the teething products stated the following:
"Hyland's Teething Tablets are manufactured to contain a small amount of belladonna, a substance that can cause serious harm at larger doses. For such a product, it is important that the amount of belladonna be carefully controlled. FDA laboratory analysis, however, has found that Hyland's Teething Tablets contain inconsistent amounts of belladonna. In addition, the FDA has received reports of serious adverse events in children taking this product that are consistent with belladonna toxicity."
By 2016's renewed warning, the "serious adverse events" noted on the 2010 report included ten possibly-related infant deaths and over 400 reports of toxicity-related symptoms, including fever, vomiting, and seizures. The FDA warns parents that they should immediately discontinue use of the teething treatments, which were sold at drug stores (most notably CVS) and retail establishments. Parents were encouraged to dispose of any unused products.
Hyland Has Not Been Found Guilty of Anything.
I am aware that I haven't really done a great job concealing my opinion of homeopathic remedies here. I believe it's mostly hokum, and that it capitalizes on ill-informed public concerns about naturalism and the "balance" of their bodies. I do not believe the intent of the products is in itself malicious, but distributing purported remedies with dangerous toxicity and little empirical benefit to paying customers seems cruel.
I do however genuinely mean it when I say anything that gives hope to people without much of it is a good thing. If it doesn't make things worse, have at it. Furthermore, Hyland's as a company is entitled to the same due process as anyone else, which includes treating them as "innocent until proven guilty." I'm just a bit riled up because those poor families have gone through something unquestionably more traumatic than a fussy teething period, and I don't care for the idea that homeopathy could be to blame.
Since the recent announcement, CVS has pulled the product from its shelves as a precautionary measure. Until the investigation is complete, any finger-pointing is only speculative based on what is known.
The company drafted an open letter to "Moms and Dads" in which it vigorously defended itself and its teething products, both in quality and safety. Having done so, they then announced the company's decision to pull and discontinue the teething products, suggesting that the "confusion" caused by the FDA report could put consumers in "a position of having to choose who to trust in the face of contradictory information."
Is it "confusing" when scientists say that putting literal poison in a product meant for babies is a bad idea? For parents struggling with colicky, sore babies, a director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research noted that "teething can be managed without prescription or over-the-counter remedies." Instead, parents are encouraged to try gentle gum massages or cold teething rings or cloths.